(…)the conceptual act of architecture is the critique, transformation, and creation of institutions. Thus architecture can be considered, paradoxically, contradictory to building, to its institutionalizing presence.
Using the architecture field as a case study, in this paper I speculate that the way we use the web is not the ongoing result of a titanic design-by-world-community, as we’re often led to believe. Navigation and communication on the web emerge from the consensus between two powerful groups of idea-shapers: the ‘legal-rights’ people and the ‘design-intelligence’ people. Together they build the ideological basis of the web, producing a spatiality that undergirds social experiences throughout life. Blogging, as a typical web practice, serves to show how the consensus at best ignores, and at worst advances, the conditions for free labor, the work necessary for making the web a growing capitalist infrastructure for accumulation. I finish by asking if architecture, a discipline in many ways dedicated to the critique of space, has room to counter dominant forms of spatial relations that the web engenders.
Our rights; their labor
First, a few seemingly simple questions: Who blogs? What professions are blogging? It‘s actually very difficult—if not impossible—to answer these. Besides, given the familiar issues of authenticity, identity, and the multiple avatars that some people maintain across various websites, it’s thorny to try to pinpoint the relation between specialized groups, and the actual content of what they’re writing about online. One moment it could be a new building; the next it could be kitten videos on Youtube.
Are professionals, be they academics, architects, or others with higher education degrees, blogging about topics willy nilly, only as a necessary social appendix to their professional culture, such as in the way that cocktail parties function? Are they blogging about their work (sometimes a form of theorizing), or are they leveraging the excess time above and beyond their socially necessary labor time to do some blogging on the side? The answer very likely is that they’re doing all of these, in some proportion or another.1 Given the variability and flexibility of blogging, and how it has reached into various corners of life, it’s also very challenging to draw any trustworthy conclusions about how architects are using blogs as part of their discipline, or architecture students as part of their design education. How to even distinguish between architects who blog from aficionados who just blog about architecture? These identities are often interchangeable or interblending, especially if one examines longer temporal scales.
What about the distinction between blogging and designing? It doesn’t really exist, according to some participant-observers. “Just ask (the blogging directors of the architecture firm FAT) Sam Jacob or Charles Holland,” says Enrique Ramírez.2 Many are blogging while designing, and vice versa, blurring distinctions between spaces for theory, collaboration, entertainment, documentation, and production.
Blogs, thus, perform several functions in the context of so-called professions like architecture. This implies that if one wanted to understand how blogs relate to architecture disciplines writ-large, one can’t just take the content of blogs at face value. One has to instead examine content along with the politics behind forms of tapping into the web (including blogs). By learning from such a combination, I’d like to offer here a wider critique of what all of us—students, critics, bloggers, architects, and academics (sometimes being more than one of these at a time)—are not doing, but perhaps could be. What if we were to examine the interface, the labor, and the fruits of blogging as interrelated moving parts? How would that change the architecture discipline as it evolves along with media?
So, with that in mind, let’s go backward in order to move forward again: What are people—whomever or whatever they may be—blogging about?3
In general, some anecdotal evidence and perfunctory study seems to indicate that there is a remarkable amount of legal content and discussion on blogs, especially pertaining to web law itself, as well as a visible presence of influential, online special interest law projects (i.e. the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Digitaldemocracy, and the Berkman Center at Harvard University).4 This may or may not come as a surprise. Some day, historians will perhaps look back and point to this with curiosity. It personally strikes me as somewhat surprising, because those who posses standard legal wisdom are also throwing that common sense to the wind, what with the web being notorious as a fly net that catches embarrassing details of the past (i.e. rants, insults, nudity, bad legal advice) and exposes them in the present.
But upon second thought, this makes some sense. As Pew research has confirmed, people spending most time online tend to be affluent (with salaries above $75,000) and digitally-connected, awash in a fog of networked devices, some of those also highly portable.5 Perhaps Blackberry-powered lawyers do fit the profile, after all. Nonetheless, the point wasn’t to monolithically ascribe generalized online content to specific professions (impossible, in the end), but rather to focus on the ideas themselves as etched onto web pages and circulating in society. Drawing from this data, then, one basic assumption to start with can be that when we all use the web, we enter into an experimental lab of privacy and intellectual rights, but not because of some inherent destiny for it to be such a space. Instead, it is such because there are people that drive the web to be that way.
Meanwhile, design culture—very broadly understood—is often focused on wealth disparities and access to the web. A global digital-divide is neatly problematized and packaged, as shown by the invention of devices like the 100-dollar laptop. But this design culture (which includes interaction, interiors, architecture, mobile web and more) seeks to address the digital disparity by thinking about ever-more clever products than through what could be various coexisting arenas of social development and communal access, technology being a variable, but not the panacea.
The obstacle, though, is that architects and their peers mostly abandoned arenas of the social as failures. But, they jumped that ship only after distribution of the means of informational and cultural access was unevenly guaranteed only in certain privileged contexts. I mention this just to point to one of the ways in which one form of spatial imagination dominated by the network as a metaphor of a global connected society and as an actual infrastructure is simultaneously occluding other alternative spatial imaginations of conduits to guarantee equal-rights access to venues of justice, education, and communication.6
So far, very schematically, I’ve mentioned, first, a growing suite of legal-rights concerns that tend to permeate every interaction on the web. And second, we also have the fetish for “design intelligence” (aka “design thinking”) that discursively enables the frenetic production of networked commodities purportedly connecting every place and everyone through phones, smart walls, and even geocoded photos. The two—a legal matrix and a spatial ideal—are not independent of each other. (How could they be?) They both form a mutually-reinforcing ensemble and together shape a powerful ideology.
Although the discourse of rights is significantly more popular than that of design, each one enables the other. Together, they assure the success of the vision of a network of self-ruled and self-interested individual consumers that communicate with each other, but who then can choose how and when to dissipate back into personal private realms. Rights discourse promises free-speech, and a democratic web, thereby naturalizing the connected system through which we navigate and share online as the virtual space that is supposed to protect speech and democracy, not just what could be one of many different spaces. This is what we need to challenge, but so far we’ve often missed chances. Debates such as a recent invasion of privacy fallout over Google’s social network application Buzz establish that online rights and personal privacy must be the default focus of thinking and activism, more than other potential arenas that could weave between offline and online worlds. In fact, a wide slice of the digerati seems to assume that there is a near-universal passion for abstract issues of privacy and digital rights. This is best exemplified by the world’s most popular blog, BoingBoing, which routinely covers censorship, electronic surveillance, and corporate assaults on personal content, but that’s about it in terms of its agitprop. The brouhaha about Google in China or Facebook privacy also support this point.
The problem I want to unpeel now is how power is distributed between these two communities of ideas, the one about rights talk, and the other about design talk. I’ll begin with rights as the obvious gorilla that dominates discourses about the web, and in ways that will be shown, greatly determines for the rest of us the usual arrangement of the virtual space (the network) of online interaction. The features of that network—the constant invitation to ‘tag’ content, for instance—constantly remit us back to the thought-space of rights (and democracy, by extension).
From there, I’ll move to the layer of design talk, focusing on a subset of architecture and design blogs. Aside from the generalized digital divide, then, there’s a second-order divide between the top of the now-well-established architecture blogs, and the rest. As a brief case study, I try to show that it is those on the top that commonly mix with—or even become—digital culture gurus, often consolidating visions of the web’s future for all. At the end of this short essay, I will finish with some proposals and incipient practices of what can be done as a critical intervention in this network to start to cut across divides.
The embedded behavioral cues of blogging
The run of the mill framing of the social problem of rights and online presence is foundational even to the establishment of an everyday agreement of how we’re supposed to blog, starting with the very design and structure of blog pages and platforms. This also sets up an unwritten set of conventions that bloggers acquiesce to (myself included), producing in the process a certain blindness to class and economic issues. Blog layouts, which are commonly predesigned and provided by blog platforms “free” for users to easily set-up, camouflage ways in which blogging is also laboring.
Through a series of virtual devices common to most all blogs (like “apps” for quick reposting, emailing, retweeting, bookmarking on other sites, or, say, “sharing” on Facebook, Digg, etc), the work chores of circulating content are hidden by what seem like benign, abstract socio-communal acts—the appearance of a gift economy. Related to this, we also see common contradictions, such as one between fully trademarked or partially licensed content (i.e. Creative Commons badges like the one that I will, in fact, proceed to use for this very paper), side by side with campaigns like “defeat censorware.”7 This implies, by the way, an untenable union between private intellectual property rights and open, free speech, but that’s another essay.
If it is true that these sharing apps and badges of functionality constantly refer back to the thought-space of rights, it is at the expense of concentrating on the divisions of labor that we all partake in. Privacy and rights have been heavily discussed in recent years, while labor time (as a blogger or a content contributor on social networking sites like Facebook, which are private content spaces), or labor rights (as online producers), have not been problematized all that much, and especially not as necessary components of the vaunted democracy.8 If there is such a thing now as a unifying consciousness of a blogger, it is one along the lines of being digital consumers with consumer-right demands (like privacy)—but not of workers.9
Focusing briefly on one aspect (out of countless) of this functionality that reaffirm our rights as net-citizens, a glance at the pages of some of the most powerful blog platforms and social sharing sites (i.e. WordPress, Blogger, Delicious, Twitter) can give us an idea of what content people are “tagging,” the practice of collectively distributing and filing content online, like a vast archival brain. (For example, on Twitter, people add hashtags to tweets, collecting all posts that pertain to the tagged subject, like this: #Beyonce. On Delicious, bookmark collections and their annotations can even be licensed for various uses under the Creative Commons guidelines).
What emerges from tag lists over and over is a picture that shows professional identities and professional or academic categories becoming less important. For example, on any given day, “medicine” no longer has the appearance of being a hollowed discipline on Delicious. The people seem to have less use for ‘medicine’ than “health,” which emerges in its stead to cross disciplinary boundaries and interest areas. This lends the impression that the web democratizes content and spans a lay public, the news media, and the professionals as equal agents in an even field, freed from a wage-economy.10 (Is there any coincidence in that this phenomenon preceded one of the most massive periods of wage devaluation for journalists and other knowledge workers?)
To draw a brief working lesson from this short summary of tagging and such, one could say that while disciplines do get reconfigured—some of their members fading out into off-line irrelevance, perhaps—traditional disciplinary categories (medicine, architecture) can paradoxically gain traction and entrenchment. But, in order to do so, these disciplines must adopt the dominant practices of the web as badges of insider authority. Bloggers tend to be the leading edge that can legitimate a discipline for the twenty-first century, persisting no matter how much they get disparaged by the discipline’s older establishment. All the while, the disciplines, architecture included—just about all of us ‘in it’—leave powerful ideologies of the web alone, including malformed concepts inherited from the hyperactive rights talk, such as plurality, democracy, and the web as somehow a-spatial or post-geographical.11
Maybe more than anything before them in history, blogs do seem to achieve their buoyancy not from some baptismal light shone upon them by institutions of authority, at least not usually, but from their interpersonal networks on and off line. As the popular wisdom goes, they achieve prominence through popular citation—tagged, tweeted, shared—organically rising to the top of the cumulus.
But perhaps like any other discipline intersecting with the web, if architecture ever had such a “golden age” of an online meritocracy, it quickly outgrew it. Architecture developed a pyramidal structure in the earlier part of the 00s that can now greatly accelerate the vetting process from above to below, both online (as in Archinect’s School Blog Project, where better postings are often selected for the main news feed), as well as in events like Postopolis, or through communities where the important architecture-related bloggers meet the Silicon Valley brain trust (like at TED conferences).12
Popular architecture blogs include Inhabitat, BLDGBLOG, Dezeen, Pruned, ArchDaily, and DailyDose. Just by studying bookmarking sites, one can tell that these blogs coalesce at the top. There also are the wildly popular (though not exclusively architectural) Worldchanging, Treehugger, Curbed, and Gothamist blogs, which actually tend to pay salaries to small armies of staff. (We should not forget that the myriad comments left on sites are also an unpaid form of blogging).13 These websites can be at least ten times more popular than blogs in the bottom of the pile. Some, like BLDGBLOG, have achieved coveted spotlighting on some of the most viewed sites in the world, such as Yahoo’s front page.
All this attention has been positive for architectural discourse, setting aside for a moment concerns about the lack of a critical approach to the cross between the rights talk and the design talk, but here’s the key factor: architecture academia and related institutions have largely missed the debate anyway, and shouldn’t they be the ones instigating it?
Architecture schools and institutions haven’t tried to come to terms with how these popular bloggers, much like the vast universe of other bloggers in other disciplines, establish a presence that sustains and nourishes a perch at the top. A co-mingling between human labor and the internet infrastructure results in particular socio-spatial configurations. It is telling that these networked subjects—the bloggers—sustain the uneven distribution of power by constantly laboring (mostly for free) in the digital salt mines: interacting on Twitter, constructing a page on Facebook, using Archinect commentary boards, and incessantly tapping on their phones to nourish networks. To slow down is to fade out.
Alongside the digital rights talk, we have yet to see an institutional response—an amelioration (or maybe just a single fellowship for an architecture blogger)—toward these spatial relations of power on the web.14 Because we haven’t, those of us in the architecture community forestall the opportunity for carving other spaces that can accommodate and foster newer forms of labor, such as inside the academy. Ideally, these spaces should also be either somewhat independent or better yet, critical of the extent of prevalent spatial discourses and practices that pertain to the web. Why not, for instance, have a challenger—one that does for theorizing network spaces what the Berkman Center does for rights talk—and at the same time critique the prevalent ideas about how democracy “should” be spatialized and protected online and offline?
I cannot wrap-up, though, without applauding the recent emergence of the shadowy #lgnlgn (“Leagues and Legions”), an ever-changing alliance of architecture media participants to challenge corporate mega-conglomerates, first spearheaded by Mimi Zeiger, but a real collaboration among several others. #lgnlgn isn’t anything else but an experimental way of appropriating (usually) corporate web tools for insurgent, dispersed publication. Also, what about the Network Architecture Lab run by Kazys Varnelis at Columbia University’s GSAPP? Whether or not these fledgling ventures will be somehow supported and recognized by the academy or other institutions in the long run has to be fought for and demanded, lest the velocity of change leave them behind.15
What is needed now is an architectural imagination that can problematize the cartographies and ideologies of the web, showing that far from the imaginary boundless stew—an ideal, uncontested space—access and rights themselves, and therefore truly democratic speech, are bordered, spatialized, and conflicting in particular ways that need to be thought about.16 We need an examination of the lines of labor mobility and flexibility, as well as to look beyond the simple spatial mappings that only show connections, but can’t say anything about the actual relationship between the politics of connectivity and the content that tends to prevail. Or, does architecture have anything else to contribute beyond the proselytizing of green commodities, the fetishism for informal architecture, the proliferation of domestic nest blogs, and the star vehicles like Dezeen? It remains to be seen.
Thanks for feedback and comments along several evolutions of this first-talk, then-essay to David Basulto, Bryan Finoki, Amber Frid-Jiménez, Cristobal García, Nam Henderson, Mark Jarzombek, Rafael Marxuach, Enrique Ramírez, Kazys Varnelis, and Mimi Zeiger.