politics

Umbrellas in Hong Kong

Given the Netlab's work for the Uneven Growth show at MoMA, the unfolding events in Hong Kong demand comment. Although they events are dramatic and their immediate outcome is entirely unclear at the moment, they aren't anything we should be surprised about. Last spring I posted a scenario that we developed for the show titled Hong Kong, 2047. It's worth taking a look at if you haven't had a chance to do so yet. Essentially, our point is that the sort of crisis being played out in Hong Kong is evidence of a growing tension between the mainland and the coastal cities. The mainland has two routes it can follow: a humiliating capitulation along the route toward losing power and a crackdown that will make the eventual lose power exponentially greater.

Simply put, the demographic bubble in the PRC will collapse over the next couple of decades. As it does so, coastal cities like Shanghai, Guangdong, Hangzhou, and Nanjing will grow in both population and power. Such coastal cities will be closer to New York or Tokyo in outlook than to the declining inland of the PRC. If the CPC has any sense, they understand that this is coming their way and that the situation in Hong Kong is a precussor to broader tensions between the mainland and emerging coastal cities (or city-states) in the next forty years. The sort of controls that China places over the Internet today will be harder to exercise in the future as technology will allow ways to route around restrictions to proliferate: the new emphasis on unbreakable security protection in the iPhone 6 is an example of this new condition.    

Undoubtedly members of the CPC—and certainly the PLA—will want to crack down hard on the protestors in Hong Kong. If this will bring temporary relief, it will also make the inevitable process of dissociating the rising coastal city-states from the mainland more difficult. 

Now again, we're talking about a process that will take decades, not something with immediate and obvious consequences so don't look for independence flags to fly over Guangzhou anytime soon. More geriatric forces in the CPC will be tempted to go for the quick fix since they won't be around to see the consequences, but the tensions we outlined in our document seem to be ever more real today. What happens in the next few days may just decide the tenor of future negotiations when the PRC can no longer act with such impunity.     

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. 

A Decade in Retrospect

Never mind that the decade really ends in a little over a year, it's time to take stock of it. Today's post looks back at the decade just past while tomorrow's will look at the decade to come.

As I observed before, this decade is marked by atemporality. The greatest symptom of this is our inability to name the decade and, although commentators have tried to dub it the naughties, the aughts, and the 00s (is that pronounced the ooze?), the decade remains, as Paul Krugman suggests, a Big Zero, and we are unable to periodize it. This is not just a matter of linguistic discomfort, its a reflection of the atemporality of network culture. Jean Baudrillard is proved right. History, it seems, came to an end with the millennium, which was a countdown not only to the end of a millennium but also to the end of meaning itself. Perhaps, the Daily Miltonian suggested, we didn't have a name for the decade because it was so bad.

Still, I suspect that we historians are to blame. After Karl Popper and Jean-François Lyotard's condemnation of master narratives, periodizing—or even making broad generalizations about culture—has become deeply suspect for us. Instead, we stick with microhistories on obscure topics while continuing our debates about past periods, damning ourselves into irrelevance. But as I argue in the book that I am currently writing, this has led critical history to a sort of theoretical impasse, reducing it to antiquarianism and removing it from a vital role in understanding contemporary culture. Or rather, history flatlined (as Lewis Lapham predicted), leaving even postmodern pastiche behind for a continuous field in which anything could co-exist with anything else.

Instead of seeing theory consolidate itself, we saw the rise of network theory (a loose amalgam of ideas from the theories of mathematicians like Duncan Watts to journalists like Adam Gopnik) and post-criticism. At times, I felt like I was a lone (or nearly lone) voice against the madding crowd in all this, but times are changing rapidly. Architects and others are finally realizing that the post-critical delirium was an empty delusion. The decade's economic boom, however, had something of the effect of a war on thought. The trend in the humanities is no longer to produce critical theory, it's to get a grant to produce marketable educational software. More than ever, universities are capitalized. The wars on culture are long gone as the Right turned away from this straw man and the university began serving the culture of networked-enduced cool that Alan Liu has written about. The alienated self gave way to what Brian Holmes called the flexible personality. If blogs sometimes questioned this, Geert Lovink pointed out that the questioning was more nihilism than anything else.

But back to the turn of the millennium. This wasn't so much marked by possibility as by delirium. The dot.com boom, the success of the partnership between Thomas Krens and Frank Gehry at the Guggenheim Bilbao, and the emergence of the creative cities movement established the themes for this decade. On March 12, 2000, the tech-heavy NASDAQ index peaked at 4069, twice its value the year before. In the six days following March 16, the index fell by nine percent and it was not through falling until it reached 1114 in August, 2003. If the delirium was revealed, the Bush administration and the Federal Reserve found a tactic to forestall the much-needed correction. Under pretext of striving to avoid full-scale collapse after 9/11, they set out to create artificially low interest rates, deliberately inflating a new bubble. Whether they deliberately understood the consequences of their actions or found themselves unable to stop it, the results were predictable: the second new economy in a decade turned out to be the second bubble in a decade. If, for the most part, tech was calmer, architecture had become infected, virtualized and sucked into the network not to build the corporate data arcologies predicted by William Gibson but as the justification for a highly complex set of financial instruments that seemed to be crafted so as to be impossible to understand by those crafting them. The Dow ended the decade lower than it started, even as national debt doubled. I highly recommend Kevin Phillips book Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism to anyone interested in trying to understand this situation. It's invaluable.

This situation is unlikely to change soon. The crisis was one created by over-accumulation of capital and a long-term slowdown in the economies of developed nations. Here, Robert Brenner's the Economics of Global Turbulence can help my readers map the situation. To say that I'm pessimistic about the next decade is putting it lightly. The powers that be had a critical opportunity to rethink the economy, the environment, and architecture. We have not only failed on all these counts, we have failed egregiously.

It was hardly plausible that the Bush administration would set out to right any of these wrongs, but after the bad years of the Clinton administration, when welfare was dismantled and the Democrats veered to the Right, it seemed unlikely that a Republican presidency could be that much worse. If the Bush administration accomplished anything, they accomplished that, turning into the worst presidency in history. In his review of the decade, Wendell Barry writes "This was a decade during which a man with the equivalent of a sixth grade education appeared to run the Western World." If 9/11 was horrific, the administration's response—most notably the disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, alliances with shifty regimes such as Pakistan, and the turn to torture and extraordinary rendition—ensured that the US would be an enemy for many for years to come. By 2004, it was embarrassing for many of us to be American. While I actively thought of leaving, my concerns about the Irish real estate market—later revealed as well-founded—kept me from doing so. Sadly, the first year of the Obama administration, in which he kept in place some of the worst policies and personnel of the Bush administration's policy, received a Nobel peace prize for little more than inspiring hope, and surrounded himself with the very same sorts of financiers that caused the economic collapse in the first place proved the Democrats were hopeless. No Republican could have done as much damage to the Democratic party as their own bumbling leader and deluded strategists did. A historical opportunity has been lost to history. 

Time ended by calling it "the worst decade ever."

For its part, architecture blew it handily. Our field has been in crisis since modernism. More than ever before, architects abandoned ideology for the lottery world of starchitecture. The blame for this has to be laid with the collusive system between architects, critics, developers, museum directors and academics, many of whom were happy as long as they could sit at a table with Frank Gehry or Miuccia Prada. This system failed and failed spectacularly. Little of value was produced in architecture, writing, or history.

Architecture theory also fell victim to post-criticism, its advocates too busy being cool and smooth to offer anything of substance in return. Perhaps the most influential texts for me in this decade were three from the last one: Deleuze's Postscript on the Society of Control, Koolhaas's Junkspace, together with Hardt and Negri's Empire. If I once hoped that some kind of critical history would return, instead I participated in the rise of blog culture. If some of these blogs simply endorsed the world of starchitecture, by the end of the decade young, intelligent voices such as Owen Hatherley, David Gissen, Sam Jacob, Charles Holland, Mimi Zeiger, and Enrique Ramirez, to name only a few, defined a new terrain. My own blog, founded at the start of the decade has a wide readership, allowing me to engage in the role of public intellectual that I've always felt it crucial for academics to pursue.   

Indeed, it's reasonable to say that my blog led me into a new career. Already, a decade ago, I saw the handwriting on the wall for traditional forms of history-theory. Those jobs were and are disappearing, the course hours usurped by the demands of new software, as Stanley Tigerman predicted back in 1992. Instead, as I set out to understand the impact of telecommunications on urbanism, I found that thinkers in architecture were not so much marginal to the discussion as central, if absent. Spending a year at the University of Southern California's Annenberg Center for Communication led me deeper into technology and not only was Networked Publics the result, I was able to lay the groundwork for the sort of research that I am doing at Columbia with my Network Architecture Lab.

The changes in technology were huge. The relatively slow pace of technological developments from the 1950s to the 1980s was left long behind. If television acquired color in the 1960s and cable and the ability to play videotapes in the late 1980s, it was still fundamentally the same thing: a big box with a CRT mounted in it. That's gone forever now, with analog television a mere memory. Computers ceased being big objects, connected via slow telephone links (just sixteen years ago, in 1993, 28k baud modems were the standard) and became light and portable, capable of wireless communications fast enough to make downloading high definition video an everyday occurrence for many. Film photography all but went extinct during the decade as digital imaging technology changed the way we imaged the world. Images proliferated. There are 4 billion digital images on Flickr alone. The culture industry, which had triumphed so thoroughly in the postmodern era, experienced the tribulations that Detroit felt decades before as the music, film, and periodicals all were thrown into crisis by the new culture of free media trade. Through the iPod, the first consumer electronics device released after 9/11, it became possible for us to take with us more music than we would be able to listen to in a year. Media proliferated wildly and illicitly.

For the first time, most people in the world had some form of telecommunication available to them. The cell phone went from a tool of the rich in 1990 to the tool of the middle class in 2000. By 2010, more than 50% of the world's population owned a cell phone, arguably a more important statistic than the fact that at the start of this decade for the first time more people lived in cities than in the country. The cell phone was the first global technological tool. Its impact is only beginning to be felt. In the developed world, not only did most people own cell phones, cell phones themselves became miniature computers, delivering locative media applications such as turn-by-turn navigation, geotagged photos (taken with the built in cameras) together with e-mail, web browsing, and so on. Non-places became a thing of the past as it was impossible to conceive of being isolated anymore. Architects largely didn't have much of a response to this, and parametric design ruled the studios, a game of process that, I suppose, took minds off of what was really happening.

Connections proliferated as well, with social media making it possible for many of us to number our "friends" in the hundreds. Alienation was left behind, at least in its classical terms, as was subjectivity. Hardly individuals anymore, we are, as Deleuze suggested, today, dividuals. Consumer culture left behind the old world of mass media for networked publics (and with it, politics, left behind the mass, the people, and any lingering notion of the public) and the long tail reshaped consumer culture into a world of niches populated by dividuals. If there was some talk about the idea of the multitude or the commons among followers of Hardt and Negri (but also more broadly in terms of the bottom up and the open source movement), there was also a great danger in misunderstanding the role that networks play in consolidating power at the top, a role that those of us in architecture saw first-hand with starchitecture's effects on the discipline. If open source software and competition from the likes of Apple hobbled Microsoft, the rise of Google, iTunes, and Amazon marked a new era of giants, an era that Nicholas Carr covered in the Big Switch (required reading).   

The proliferation of our ability to observe everything and note it also made this the era an era in which the utterly unimportant was relentlessly noted (I said relentlessly constantly during this decade, simply because it was a decade of relentlessness). Nothing, it seemed, was the most important thing of all.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault wrote, "visibility is a trap." In the old regime of discipline, panopticism made it possible to catch and hold the subject. Visibility was a trap in this decade too, as architects and designers focussed on appearances even as the real story was in the financialization of the field that undid it so thoroughly in 2008 (this was always the lesson of Bilbao… it wasn't finance, not form, that mattered). Realizing this at the start of the decade, Robert Sumrell and I set out to create a consulting firm along the lines of AMO. Within a month or two, we realized that this was a ludicrous idea and AUDC became the animal that it is today, an inheritor to the conceptual traditions of Archizoom, Robert Smithson, and the Center for Land Use Interpretation. Eight years later, we published Blue Monday, a critique of network culture. I don't see any reason why it won't be as valuable—if not more so—in a decade than it is now.   

I've only skimmed the surface of this decade in what is already one of the lengthiest blog posts ever, but over the course of the next year or two hope to do so to come to an understanding of the era we were just in (and continue to be part of) through the network culture book. Stay tuned.

Trouble in the Infrastructural State

 

Remember Christopher Hawthorne's bizarrely off-kilter review of the Infrastructural City in the LA Times? Hawthorne thought we missed the mark when we suggested that a rabidly self-centered politics— coupled with massive levels of complexity and skyrocketing costs—ended the era of big infrastructure in Los Angeles, leaving in its wake a dysfunctional ecosystem of jury-rigged, often-privatized infrastructures. Instead, Hawthorne took Obama at his word when he thought he would build a new WPA and pined for OMA-designed windmills of the coast of Catalina Island. But that's the difference between many journalists and academic researchers: the former have to sell stories, the latter have to draw verifiable conclusions.
 
By now its clear that there will be no new WPA-style initiative under Obama. There will be no new Herzog and de Meuron nuclear plants rising in the Mojave, no new Zaha Hadid sewage plants in Malibu. So now its time to take stock of where Los Angeles and California are really heading and the future seems grim.  
 
Take a look at  "The Ungovernable State," a chilling account of California politics in the Economist. California is collapsing due to the very same sort of politics that we identified in the Infrastructural City. Los Angeles, and the infrastructural state of California are exacerbated conditions of neoliberal government, virtually incapacitated by the local interests, individualism, and extremism that rules politics today. 
 
It's a different end-game from the one that Mike Davis identified in the City of Quartz: things aren't ending with a racial bang bang but with a political stalemate, but its a bad end nonetheless. What should concern us is that if California is an exacerbated condition, its still a model for neoliberal government: New York, for example, is close behind. This was the real lesson of the Infrastructural City. Only facing up to that reality, not pining for windmills or a new WPA, is going to help.   

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

hilary clinton and wen jiabao

I'm exaggerating, of course, the Bush Administration was a nightmare of epic proportions.

But the Obama administration is, apparently, hoping to alienate me quickly. Just look at the latest: Hilary Clinton announces that human rights will continue to take a back seat to crisis. The state of exception continues.

The Californian Candidate?

Unquestionably, the election of Barack Obama is the end to a long global nightmare, an affirmation by Americans that we are neither evil nor idiotic as a country. But we need to stand guard too. Obama's first choice, chief-of-staff Rahm Emmanuel is a Zionist and former investment banker, two very questionable allegiances in my book. There's Hilary Clinton and the other former members of the Clinton cabinet, suggesting that this might be business as usual for the Democratic machine. If that wasn't enough, there is Robert Gates's continued presence as defense secretary, another odd choice since a 180 from Bush policy seemed in order. 

But I want to raise another issue here, this time about change.gov? Now on the one hand, after eight years of outright lies and deceit, I relish the promise of governmental transparency. On the other hand, I wonder about the promise of participation that the site holds out. It smacks of the Californian Ideology, the idea that new technologies will bring about a libertarian democratic techno-utopia. I'm not sure that change.gov really meshes with some of the choices that Obama's made in his Cabinet. Moreover, I worry about it being smoke and mirrors. Now I can't imagine anything being even half as bad as the last eight years, but the Cabinet is hardly a model for transparency...

The Big Sort

Last week's Economist contains a provocative discussion of The Big Sort. Why The Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. I've long been interested in the phenomenon of demographic clustering. See for example, the essay that I co-wrote with Anne Friedberg for the Networked Publics book. According to this model, mobility is leading individuals to cluster in communities of other like-minded individuals. In Bill Bishop's book, and the Economist article, the concern is with the consequences of such clustering for politics. Americans increasingly don't talk to people with political views unlike themselves. Instead, we live in liberal urban environments or conservative exurbs or whatever community turns us on. I don't suspect Europe is going to do much better. The EU has changed dramatically in the last two decades and, with the freedom of mobility that Europeans enjoy, old ties like language and family are going to dissipate over time, in favor of a similar clustered world.

The consequences for politics are relatively clear, if distrubing, but this "big sort" also has consequences for urbanism since politics is such a huge part of thinking about cities. So when we think of dredging up Jane Jacobs yet again for models of thinking about the city, let's remember the ideological context and the larger complexities of such situations.

super tuesday

Larry Lessig has a twenty-minute video up on his site about why he favors Obama over Clinton. 

Lessig makes the choice between the two clearer than ever.

architecture is politics

I'm reworking part of the Networked Publics book and ran across a post by Mitch Kapor titled "architecture is politics." Compare this with my earlier post about Lawrence Lessig's use of the term architecture in his book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. Again, as any reader of Mark Wigley's The Architecture of Deconstruction knows, such references are far from idle.

As readers of this blog now, I'm thoroughly bored by idle speculations in architectural form (as if we still needed that). Kapor's post is useful in reminding us that architecture has a much more important role to play in society and that its future is tied to how we think of the Net.

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