Written for the inaugural NGV Triennal publication
Ewan McEoin kindly asked me to contribute a piece to the publication accompanying the National Gallery of Victoria’s inaugural Triennal, a show that The Guardian just called “one of the most exciting exhibitions ever mounted in Australia … an unflinching exploration of the modern world.” Huge congratulations to Ewan McEoin, Simon Maidment, Megan Patty, Pip Wallis, Myf Doughty, and the NGV team for the show, and the publication.—London, December 2017
The Battle for the Infrastructure of Everyday Life
The object of design in the twenty-first century is the city itself. In the nineteenth century, it was the nation state, the factory and its engines, and the channels of globalised capitalism that began to emerge around that — clippers, canals, cables and contracts. In the twentieth century, the state and global markets became more complete versions of themselves, meaning politics and possessions were the order of the day. Art and design responded accordingly, often the willing handmaidens of these shifts.
Now, however, those late twentieth-century values, drifting towards individualism, have simply been stretched taut into the twenty-first, and the whole thing is ‘buffering’ as a result. Or at least has hit a punctuation point: a question mark or ellipsis in the form of events like Brexit, or a series of exclamation marks in the case of Trump (or perhaps the blast of random punctuation marks that used to denote swearwords in Asterix).
The philosopher Jacques Attali, in A Brief History of the Future (2006), foresaw an end-point to this relentless drift towards the individual being the centre of things, noting the reductive movement, an endless shortening of the focal length, from religion to region to nation to person. He wrote of an erasure of nation states into a fully globalised market (‘hypercapitalism’), with two core industries: ‘insurance’ and ‘distraction’. It’s best to gloss over what follows — a planetary ‘hyperconflict’ — even if Attali ends on a broadly optimistic note of a world government as the only possible way of humanity finally addressing climate change (‘hyperdemocracy’).
But in Western cultures, it feels as if we are already firmly located in our ‘distraction’ phase, whereas ‘insurance’ has perhaps manifested itself as a financialisation of most structures. Another key Attali prediction, a mass ‘nomadisation’ of migrants at both ends of the economic scale, is certainly with us, too.
Attali’s blind spots are around the detail of how distraction or financialisation manifest themselves. Perhaps these technical details are always the hardest to get right — few could foresee the impact of the internet or the smartphone, hamstrung by our tendency to “look at the present through a rear-view mirror (as) we march backwards into the future”, as Marshall McLuhan had it. Attali was unable to truly comprehend the impact of computation on the way we do, well, almost everything; to perceive exactly how, as venture capitalist Marc Andreessen famously put it, that “software is eating the world”. Indeed, the effects of computation are often considered, rightly or wrongly, to be invisible, ephemeral; to be virtual rather than physical. No wonder we couldn’t see it coming.
Art is desperately playing catch-up, too. It either tries to capture and convey computational culture through drawing out software’s shadow, or by using its own tools against itself.
James Bridle’s art wrestles directly with the dynamics of these new systems, often by marking the ground, as police would draw a chalk outline of a body at a crime scene, to denote the presence of these (not really) invisible systems, as with his drone shadow series, or Autonomous Trap 001 (2017).
Richard Mosse’s extraordinary immersive multichannel video installation Incoming, 2017, in collaboration with composer Ben Frost and cinematographer Trevor Tweeten, deploys various imaging technologies to capture traces of the journeys of refugees and migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Senegal and Somalia. The awful, shattering reality of Attali’s ‘nomadisation’ is rendered using the conflicted artefacts of post-border conflicts, in turn making these military technologies both accomplice and witness.
Similar to that of Bridle and Mosse, the work of designers and artists Natalie Jeremijenko, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Hito Steyerl directly manipulates urban systems, biotech futures and digital media to reflect upon the cultures of living they are engendering. These works generate two-way relationships, with the virtual and physical infused, deliberately confusing our realities. As Brian Kuan Wood put it, addressing Steyerl’s work:
When war, genocide, capital flows, digital detritus, and class warfare always take place partially within images, we are no longer dealing with the virtual but with a confusing and possibly alien concreteness that we are only beginning to understand.
Or, to put it another way, briefly ponder Donald Trump’s Twitter timeline. (Then run.)
Yet all of this, as powerful as it is, remains secondary to the everyday experience of living in our cities. Art lags behind, unable to capture the visceral quotidian experience of Uber, TaskRabbit, Snapchat, Giphy, Pokémon Go (which has already Been and Pokémon Gone), Helsinki’s autonomous shuttles and Singapore’s self-driving taxis, Japanese sushi-delivery robots and Domino’s Pizza delivery drones, American security-guard robots upended in shopping-mall fountains, South Korean robotic mannequins, ‘conversations’ with AI personal assistants over email, shouting at Amazon Alexa, ‘holographic’ assistants at airports, Microsoft chatbots becoming racist and genocidal on Twitter, Chinese chatbots vanishing after spurning the Communist Party, 4Chan, 3D printed handguns and Google Tango phones 3D-mapping spaces, Russian election-hacking multiplied by Cambridge Analytica and the Macedonian Fake-News Complex, Icelandic crowdsourced constitutions, Dutch police training eagles to take down illegal drones, Bitcoin hard forks, Ethereum hacks … In other words, a quick flick across the home page of The Verge or TechCrunch. Art in general has not found a foothold in these new times.
This inability to be insightful about reality as it is unfolding around us is hardly unusual. Inadvertently hilarious landscape paintings emerged during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in which artists tried to depict Sheffield or Manchester or Leeds: gentle, Arcadian scenes, broken only by a sudden dirty blotch of smokestacks in the middle distance, furtively and apologetically framing the dappled copses, gambolling lambs and bonneted ladies in the foreground. It took some time for painting and other visual arts to develop a suitable vocabulary for the ‘shock city’, just as contemporary art will need entirely new methods to track, explicate or simply convey the visceral reality of the contemporary city.
Yet, two recent short films do articulate this moment of virtual and physical collision, and coincidentally in counterpoint to each other.
Filmmaker Timo Arnall’s Internet Machine (2016) records what he calls the “invisible infrastructures of the internet … the hidden materiality of our data”. His carefully obsessive, high-definition stalking takes as a subject one of the largest, most secure and ‘fault tolerant’ data centres in the world, run by Telefónica in Alcalá, Spain. These extraordinary facilities, almost post-human, are the very physical footprint of data, and pinned down expertly and completely through slow or static framing.
In contrast, Keiichi Matsuda’s short Hyper-Reality (2016) drops us headfirst into the saturated and suffused physical and virtual realities on the other end of Arnall’s data centres. Shot in the already heightened reality of Medellín’s streets, whilst also existing in purest After Effects, this short film is the corollary to Arnall’s, both in terms of concept — a hyper-stylised reality of digital services fogging our everyday lives — and aesthetically: it is a jittery, rotoscoped overload of hi-vis colour, jagged soundscapes, gamified religion and emotional trauma, in stark contrast to Arnall’s meditative stills.
Where Matsuda hits us in the gut with the virtual rendered amid the physical, Arnall delivers what is almost a sociological investigation of servers themselves, a forensic examination of the physical infrastructure that constructs the virtual. Arnall writes:
In experiencing these machines at work, we start to understand that the internet is not a weightless, immaterial, invisible cloud, and instead to appreciate it as a very distinct physical, architectural and material system.
Indeed, this is where the world is. Digital and physical cannot be neatly separated as if they were a simple software update of Cartesian duality. Hence the physical reality of the city is where digital culture is at — a real car turns up when you order an Uber, after all — and also where design is at its most powerful, in shaping the systems that produce the world, and simultaneously producing a reflection of them.
Where the twentieth-century city found articulation in the cultural production of Cubism and Didion, Alphaville and hip-hop, Reich and Ballard, it was most obviously manifest in architecture and design itself, where the shift to individualism and the ‘century of the self’ meant an increased focus on the private home, and the products that would furnish it, from Fritz Hansen to Herman Miller, Iittala to IKEA. The emerging urban middle class begat product design, industrial design — furniture and furnishings, and the shows like Salone del Mobile (Milan Furniture Fair) that would generate and support demand. The interior became more important than the exterior of dwellings. These inert objects stood in for a way of living, but were increasingly private. The city life of the early twentieth century — publicly lived in cafes and squares, markets and streets — retreated throughout the late twentieth century, as cars begat suburbs begat houses begat Grand Designs, MasterChef and Elle Decoration.
As the twenty-first century begins to assert its own patterns, those twentieth-century models unravel in interesting ways, as the private dissipates back into an increasingly public culture.
Andre Jaque’s installation Ikea Disobedients, 2012, describes how the ‘hackability’ of IKEA is its reality. The actual diversity of IKEA owners contrasts sharply with the homogenous family patterns and places that Jaques found portrayed in IKEA’s catalogues. Indeed, the diversity of uses that IKEA’s products are put to also goes well beyond the original intent, their ‘mods’ representing a shift from a twentieth-century idea of furniture as a single assembly to a twenty-first-century idea of the malleable platform, the recombinant kit of parts.
It also represents a shift from private to public, flipping those once-private living rooms into exhibition mode. Broadening this to spaces and infrastructures, we can see that these, too, have a public culture, which shapes a sense of what ‘public’ is. And this is where the idea of public itself is most at threat: do we build our cities, that pre-eminent public good, and their associated infrastructures — such as mobility, energy, water, waste, public space, housing and so on — around that stretched taut individualism, or upon the potential of a renewed public?
In the twentieth century, our infrastructure was largely inert; our culture sat on top, or drove over it. Famously, Joan Didion called freeways “the only secular communion Los Angeles has”, describing a grimly shared sensibility propped up upon the snaking concrete systems poured over California, impossible to ignore, yet intransigent, brutish, incapable of flexing — hardly something one could hack (at least without causing major delays on the 101).
Frank Lloyd Wright knew that infrastructure was a form of culture. In The Disappearing City (1932), he said, “In the gasoline service station may be seen the beginning of an important advance agent of decentralization”. And thus for him, the humble ‘servo’ was a first marker laid down for his Broadacre City project.
While Broadacre City was never realised, it paved the way for the pattern of mid to late twentieth-century sprawling urbanism, focused on increasingly individualised patterns of living. That design leads directly to the endless Melbourne suburbs that now choke the city:
The unrelenting flat suburban grind of the northern suburbs surrounded them. The further they drove, the more Rosie thought the world around them was getting uglier, the heavy grey sky weighing down on the landscape, crushing down on them. The lawns and nature strips they passed were yellowing, grim, parched. The natural world seemed leached of colour. She thought it was because this world was so far from the breath of the ocean, that it was starved for air. —From ‘The Slap’, Christos Tsiolkas (2008)
Or, as landscape architect Richard Weller memorably put it, “The Australian suburbs are the places that cars built when we weren’t looking”. The problem was that we were looking.
The passage from Tsiolkas reveals the impact of letting the twentieth century leak through into the twenty-first, just as the thoroughly twenty-first-century Tesla Solar Roof technology is unimaginatively slapped on top of an horrific McMansion, as if plucked from the dusty old pages of a Sears, Roebuck catalogue, available in ‘Textured’, ‘Smooth’, ‘Tuscan’ and ‘Slate’. Whilst solar cells and batteries are potentially transformational components in themselves, the product concept that Elon Musk’s Tesla has wrapped around them reveals the paucity of thinking in that company, an inability to conceptualise and realise the different business or ownership models that are latent within the technology. For all the sheen, Tesla is currently a twentieth century company, only wearing the costume of the twenty-first.
Yet a genuinely new set of conditions is emerging. Compare one of those LA flyovers to Joris Laarman’s 3D-printed canal bridge in Amsterdam; these are entirely different cultures, expressed through infrastructure. See also Laarman’s formal experiments in furniture and other objects, deploying industrial multi-axis robots with 3D toolkits at community scale, drawing out a ‘new craft’ of digital production and local production, potentially underpinned by quite different value models to those of twentieth-century infrastructure. Just as a neighbourhood micro-grid shared by a series of blocks — as with LandCorp’s Gen Y Demonstration Housing Project at White Gum Valley, Perth — is quite different to Tesla’s Solar Roof, despite both being powered by the same sun.
While a freeway is often publicly owned, after a fashion, there is a different order of possibility implied in Laarman’s fabrication experiments. They shift the focus of design away from the acquisition of static products, piling up in the homes of individuals, to something far more interesting and socially powerful: to shared systems, civic systems. This is another reality unfolding around us, in part driven by old instincts — rediscovering the sun as an energy source, or the neighbourhood as a form of collective organisation — and in part by new technologies, such as Internet of Things–based responsiveness in these everyday systems.
This culture, as Raymond Williams might’ve said, will develop its own ‘structures of feeling’. This could go either way. Adam Greenfield, surveying the array of generally useless ‘Internet of Things’ devices tumbling off Kickstarter, and out of the labs of the ‘big five’ of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Alphabet, as having their own particular sensibility:
When we pause to listen to it, the overriding emotion of the internet of things is a melancholy that rolls off of it in waves and sheets. The entire pretext on which it depends is a milieu of continuously shattered attention. (Greenfield, 2017)
Quite so. Yet because of this, rather than being “continuously shattered”, we must pay more attention to these sensibilities, atmospheres, dynamics. This is the distraction industry at play, and we must reappropriate it, for it is increasingly the modern world being played out in cities around us right now.
Due to this new plasticity of infrastructure, buildings and objects, we express ourselves through our cities more so than through art. Uber, for example, clearly expresses a certain condition, a harrowingly bleak individualism, the ne plus ultra of the Californian Ideology, as if The Fountainhead has been consumed wholly and vomited out into an assemblage of code, venture capital and lobbyists, libertarian bile sprayed over our streets, communities and the genuine collective achievements of the past century.
If we are to avoid this form of acidic melancholy, design has a job to do. In fact, as Greenfield sees with the potential of fabrication, many of those dynamics, if unmoored from their ideologies and reappropriated — a form of Ikea Disobedients at the scale of the city — could be put to use in ways that do not necessarily lead to individualism, shattered attentions and the fatal ‘distraction’ that Attali foresaw.
For instance, the Kenyan minibuses known as matatus are just as much a transport system as Uber — and a visualisation of the movement of Ubers and matatus would no doubt look rather similar — yet the ownership and dynamics are completely different. This is not to say that the matatu is some idealised form of shared transport — a swift glance at its safety record would reveal otherwise. It’s simply noting that these dynamics are available to us all, in a huge diversity of ways. In a quite different context, there’s no technical reason why Transport for London, or Public Transport Victoria, could not have done Uber for London or Melbourne before Uber did. And the value to the local economy would have been profoundly different as a result, never mind it would have provided a way of mitigating all of Uber’s other deleterious effects on cities.
Uber, Lyft et al are now thought to be slowing down traffic in Manhattan, due to increased congestion. So leaving aside what we might euphemistically call ‘issues’ around the way they did business under apparently disgraced founder Travis Kalanick, or their impact on their ‘non-employees’, it appears that Uber is not even improving mobility — just as Airbnb looks like it may be raising rents in cities with already soaring housing costs. Yet briefly peeling away all those other aspects, we’re left with the sense of Uber as a well-designed app and a bunch of lawyers and lobbyists. Making that good user experience is not hard — it is a known known. And if you’re a local transport agency, you are the law, effectively, so there’s little need for lawyers and lobbyists. To reframe an on-demand taxi network, underpinned by a good app, as locally owned public transport rather than VC-backed global corporation is entirely possible. These are the cultural systems we have to engage with as designers.
Our cities are paused on the edge of several different alternatives. One we might call ‘business-as-usual’ (BAU), which is actually a slow, unthinking drift from twentieth-century systems into those of networked urbanism, in which we are unprepared, ill-advised and increasingly subjugated by individualising technologies applied at the urban and supranational scale.
The other city before us is also full of the possibilities of the same networked urbanism, yet it is engaged with consciously and deliberately, aware of how to work with the dynamics of contemporary systems for civic outcomes.
It implies a quite different form of city-making, enabled by a convergence of contemporary technologies such as building fabrication, robotics for maintenance and construction, on-demand and autonomous mobility and logistics systems, off-grid utility infrastructure, advanced manufacturing, shared amenities and spaces, and super-local decision-making platforms, underpinned by digital services and real-time data.
Far more important than this technology set, however, is the question of their ownership. This is where the real invention is required, the true design agenda: how do we build upon the best aspects of cooperative development and shared ownership to use these technologies in a way that reinforces the idea of the city as a public good, not a mere collision of private ones? We know the latter leads simply to untrammelled inequality, a noose slowly tightening around our cities, and clearly manifest in recent events. Yet there are real possibilities in the former.
Buildings could be adaptable, modular yet customised structures, constructed as required around people’s true needs and desires, and recycled or retrofitted once beyond their use-by date. Cooperative-led housing projects, exemplified by Berlin’s baugruppen movement, provide ways of developing meaningful, resilient property largely without property developers, simply through encouraging local shared ownership, shared design and decision-making suffused with civic values. Even the outcomes are more interesting from an architectural point of view: the true complexity and diversity of how we live today is thrillingly baked into these buildings. (Contrast this with the hugely limited choice the market tends to produce.) Look at Sou Fujimoto’s early tentative ideas of what housing built around genuinely shared spaces, both intensely private and public, would be like, in his pavilion for the Muji House Vision exhibit, 2016. Or, more concretely, Zürich’s inspirational More Than Housing or Kalkbreite cooperative-led projects, or indeed the promising first flights of Melbourne’s Nightingale(s).
As further buildings are required, they could be designed and constructed on site, using local fabrication facilities, materials and skills, supported by professional expertise. Systems like WikiHouse, OpenStructures, FabCity or Joris Laarman’s MX3D metal printer projects enable a networked production approach, directly shaped by its users and owners.
New ‘non-grid’ infrastructure, based around on-site and locally owned energy generation and battery storage, can respond to demand in near real time, potentially enabling more careful energy use in the first place, and connected to a grid only if necessary or useful. Local decision-making can be calibrated as a series of nested, interlinked decisions, from individual up to city, via a series of civic shades and scales in between.
Local mobility could be delivered via on-demand shared autonomous vehicles, alongside or working in the gaps of existing mass transit services, requiring minimal new infrastructure, and again potentially owned at the local neighbourhood scale. Most people don’t need their on-demand mobility service to work in all global cities simultaneously; they are usually just moving around Sheffield or Sousse, Seoul or São Paulo, and particular neighbourhoods therein. Systems could largely exist at this scale — think ‘Uber for a neighbourhood’ (which is not Uber) — with mass public transport connecting these cells together at a larger scale. Or indeed note that the most interesting autonomous mobility start-ups right now are not those of the Silicon Valley, but instead the Garonne Valley, where EasyMile, the Toulouse-based start-up, makes the autonomous buses that will go live on Helsinki’s streets as part of their Sohjoa programme later this year.
Indeed the humble bus, as a form of utilitarian shared transport, is far more interesting than the Teslas and Waymos of this world. Citymapper, the London-based mobility app, launched a bus in 2017 — a real, live, physical bus — dubbed the Night Rider, and licensed by Transport for London. In the blog post announcing the bus, Citymapper effortlessly pulls off that trick of stealing the dynamics of Silicon Valley while ignoring its attendant ideologies.
Note to Silicon Valley: it’s a social hyper-local multi-passenger pooled vehicle. Our geo-matching technology routes the multi-seated vehicles to specially calculated lat-long locations, which optimise the boarding of multiple homo sapiens with varied demographics, while minimising waiting times, leading to efficient overall ETAs.
Note to rest of the world: it’s a bus.
As Tony Judt noted in his book The Memory Chalet (2010), the bus is the “moving spirit and incarnation of a certain idea of London … Greenliners box the city, acknowledging its astonishing scale but asserting, in its distinctive routes and endpoints, its necessary limits”. The bus, with its shared space and potential off-grid movement, combined with real-time data, predictive analytics and a strong user experience, could assume a central role in cities once again. Again, the key question is ownership and governance.
In this shared networked urbanism, data is threaded together locally to make all this tick, yet data need not ‘scale’ any further than it has to. Indeed, in the ‘business as usual’ scenario, a data-driven world could easily become a suffocating prison. As Shannon Mattern put it, “In this universe, citizens relate to their city by consuming and administering its systems, and by serving as sources of measurable behavioral data”. Data could be super-local, however, and effectively fade as it reaches the limits of its use, or work to rules designed by the community that generates it, as is being prototyped by the EU-funded Decode project. It need go no further than a street, if that’s the scale of the system it’s driving.
All of these things are possible. We need design to engage with this, the true infrastructure of everyday life, just as it engaged with the previous twentieth-century version of that, from gas stations to Giraud, camper vans to Cappellini. The works described earlier — from Steyerl, Bridle and Mosse to those two films from Matsuda and Arnall — cause us to reflect upon the material reality of this culture. Design’s job is to do likewise, and then to synthesise, to propose, to make: to help us understand what networks of shared ownership can be in the twenty-first century, through decisively enabling them.
Infrastructure is culture. It is not simply a platform for culture, in the old sense, as with Didion’s communion on the LA freeways, but a platform in the contemporary sense, with completely different values expressed by Silicon Valley’s Uber, Kenya’s matatus or Finland’s Sohjoa, enabling diverse patterns of living, even though all are new applications running on the old hardware of twentieth-century roads. In contrast, the model of possession, of ownership, of individualism that underpins Volkswagen also underpins Tesla, at least currently, as actually less diverse, less forward-thinking. So Tesla remains a largely twentieth-century model of vehicle. Business-as-usual (BAU), in fact. We must look around us to find truly twenty-first century expressions. To be clear, these could be fleets of pedal-powered cargo bike riders with cellphones as much as robotics, an old model reappropriated for a networked age.
Housing is culture. Niklas Maak, in his wonderful book ‘Living Complex: From Zombie City to the New Communal’ (discussed here), describes how it is not the tired starchitect model of the twentieth century — or its counterpoint, the business-as-usual Australian suburbs noted by Tsiolkas and Weller — that that is innovative, useful or even capable of new thinking or expression. Instead, it is models like baugruppen, Nightingale, or More Than Housing, or a bevy of Japanese architects like Sou Fujimoto, Kazuyo Sejima, Ryue Nishizawa, Takaharu and Yui Tezuka and Kazunori Sakamoto, each of which addresses the true complexity, utility and pleasure of living together in shared places.
Energy is culture, with an ‘out of sight, out of mind’, twentieth-century business-as-usual approach to fossil fuel–based energy generation, exemplified with mind-numbing clarity by Australian treasurer Scott Morrison fondling a lump of coal in parliament. Or, alternatively, by renewable energy platforms like Google’s Project Sunroof, Tesla’s Powerwall, Australian start-up AllGrid, or LandCorp’s White Gum Valley project, where rooftop photovoltaics on David Barr’s Step House are underpinned by the blockchain-based algorithms of local start-up Power Ledger, to facilitate trusted local transactions. (In theory. Note that these super-local energy systems of microgrids and nanogrids could turn out to be entirely counter-civic, unless designed carefully. Not only might blockchain use more energy than it saves, an algorithmic sledgehammer to crack the nut of simple local trust problems best solved in other ways, they could either reinforce and engender social fabric, or destroy it — will I share my spare kilowatts with my neighbour if we’ve fallen out over an overhanging poinciana tree? These are high-stakes design challenges.)
These are different forms of design, as comfortable with predictive analytics and political structures as with people and plastics, wrestling with ambiguities and ethics as much as with affordances and physics. This is service design, interaction design, strategic design, as well as architecture, industrial design, product design fused to an array of social sciences, arts and other humanities, as well as engineering and scientific research. Ultimately, there is a new hybridised design practice lurking in here, scuttling around in the long shadows cast by those calcified twentieth-century disciplines. This would be a design practice for a networked society, understanding the value and possibility in shared spaces, places, things and rituals.
Cities are where we come together in shared places. Cities are intrinsically about sharing, whether that’s the public pool, the street, an energy grid or a transport network; this is where the challenge is clearest, and most potent. Indeed the whole point of cities, paraphrasing Richard Sennett, is living together with people that are not like you. It is this fundamental civilising function that could save us from the relentless waves of individualism currently washing up on our shores, fuelled by the unthinking application of powerful technologies or BAU logics enabled by the distraction industry. We must instead engage design, in its broadest sense, with that goal in mind — of consciously living together with people that are not like you; and making that the best of all possible worlds. This is our choice: baugruppen or BAU?
The object of design in the twenty-first century is the city itself.
A version of this piece was originally published in the publication accompanying the National Gallery of Victoria’s inaugural Triennal — London, December 2017.
Leave a Reply