My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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chemistry as architecture

Jo Guldi and I were musing last night about architecture and I got to thinking about Lawrence Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. He lays out a framework that there are four regulatory forces operating in society: law, market, social norms, and architecture. The core of his argument is that code (the programming matter that makes up all things digital) is architecture.

One of the things that he points out is that when all regulatory forces align, change happens effectively and efficiently. A good example of this (not in his book) is domestic violence. The concept didn’t exist 50 years ago, but in the 1970s, social norms and law teamed up against domestic violence. The role of the market and architecture is a bit more of a stretch, but in some states, wages were withheld for domestic violence (in conjunction with divorce) and that rethinking of the home as a space that law could regulate was part of the puzzle. Still, I got to thinking about what made domestic violence spike back up in the 1990s. Domestic violence has long been associated with alcohol… and then, in the 90s, with crystal meth.

So I started thinking that there’s a third element of Lessig’s architecture:

Objects: architecture of space
Code: architecture of information
Chemistry: architecture of people

It is easy to discount chemistry as an architecture of humanity if we assume that it’s out of our control. But as we increasingly live in a world of DNA programming, pharmaceutical manipulation, and mood-altering substances (from the crap in Doritos to crystal meth), we must start accounting for the ways that chemistry serves as an architecture of human behavior and, thus, a force in regulating peoples and practices. I don’t think that it’s a distinct force, by a third leg of what constitutes “architecture.”

Part of why I think it’s important to highlight the role that chemistry (and to a certain degree biology) play as an architectural force is that it seems to me that there’s too little attention payed to the ways in which chemistry & social norms and chemistry & the law connect (while there’s a lot concerning objects and code). There are some great STS scholars in this area, including Cori Hayden (author of When Nature Goes Public) and Joe Dumit (author of Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity (In-formation)). Because of Big Pharm, there’s a lot of public talk about chemistry & the market, but I’m not aware of a lot of broader discourse about how chemistry is a regulatory society force (although Quinn Norton’s Bodyhacking Talk is fantabulous on this).

If we do conceive of chemistry as another aspect of architecture, how must we think of its regulatory powers and the needs to regulate it? In what ways is chemistry similar to and different from code or objects? (Or am I totally off base?) Anyhow, just some musings for the weekend…

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11 comments to chemistry as architecture

  • How is “architecture” defined in this context?

  • beverly atschin

    Yes, me would also like if people would stop using ‘architecture’ as a label for things which they feel need deconstructing and refinement and more attention.

  • danah,

    i think this is a great extension of lessig’s model. another person who i think does address these questions (though not using the language of regulation) is carl elliot in
    better than well. what he shows is how new bio-medical technologies of the self (medications, surgery etc.) support the architecture of the American self. i would check out the book and it makes for great teaching too.

  • Gabriella Coleman

    and Ian Kerr has thought a lot about this from a legal perspective too. His work is fantastic:

  • dano

    For more on how chemistry is the architecture of life, and to add the meme and theme of networking into the mix, I suggest Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science and Everyday Life. Prof. Barabasi points out how some chemicals are supernodes (more important than others) in the network of chemicals that compose the reactions in the bag that is us. The network could be another example of the architecture metaphor.

    Some chemicals are on the fringe, and if knocked out of the mix little else is affected. Others though, the supernodes of the network, are important in many reactions and if knocked out the entire structure collapses. There are a number of genetic diseases in which this is apparent, and similarly many poisons or vaccines operate on the same principle. The entire “structure” of the lifeform stands on the foundation of the chemistry “underneath”.

  • I think that it is Weber who said that “the place is the link”.

  • Steve

    You can really see aspects of this if you hang out much with drug people. There are characteristic personality types and modes of social interaction associated with particular substances of choice. It would not be too far a reach, from what I’ve observed, to coin terms such as “alcohol space”, “crack space”, “meth space”, “X space”, etc. to refer to the physical and social regions dominated by the particular substance and the culture and behavior associated with that substance.

    More by happenstance than by choice, I have the dubious privelege of spending a lot of time in crack space (although I myself don’t use crack or any form of cocaine). And, I’ve been able to see first hand that it is a world with its own language, rules, customs, etc. which are determined both by the effects of the drug on personalities, as well as the rituals and conventions that have grown up around the practical considerations of obtaining the drug.

    For a look at a different aspect of the question, Larry Niven’s “Known Space” fiction touches on the question of deliberately altering psychochemistry for social ends. “Ethics of Madness” is probably the classic, but even more interesting, to me, is how agents of the ARM (UN police force) are maintained in artifically induced (or occasionally naturally ocurring) states of psychosis because this is a useful trait for law enforcers in an otherwise pacifistic society. I don’t recall with certainty the story that highlights this, but I think it was “Madness Has Its Place”

    The Known Space entry at Wikipedia characterizes it as follows:

    Agents of the ARM are commonly known as Schizes, due to the artificially induced state of paranoid schizophrenia they are kept in to enhance their usefulness as law enforcement officials in a society that keeps most of its populace docile and naive through the aforementioned science of psychistry (see “Madness Has Its Place”).


  • If architecture refers to structures that man makes from materials at hand, and is then applied to scientific (molecular, chemical, etc.) structures which are pre-existing rather than man made, then shouldn’t the structuring of code begin (as it has) in the modus of the first, with the goal to merge not, as is our wont, with our classification of the second, but rather, as seems natural, with the organic nature of the scientific?

  • greg pine simpoh

    As I am beginning to hunt for a new job (most likely in the technical support field), I hope that the social arena in which I end up working does not use chemistry as a pillar of reasoning for project development.
    However, I can imagine help-desk staff members often need to tell people to take a chill-pill, which probably doesn’t translate well for the people who need to be practice patience.
    If it’s possible that the first form of physical interaction was required to move-that-which-one-cannot, then is it also possible that humanity still (in a vague sense) “requires” interaction to move certain forms of data?

  • Steve

    I was motivated to think a little more deeply about this question after posting last night. I’m not very familiar with Lessig’s work, but I was able to find a brief and comptent-appearing summary of the concepts in the original version of “Code” at

    Taking off from what I read there, I came up with the following musings:

    Is “cyberspace” a space? Is that the appropriate metaphor? If the media are “extensions of man” in McCluhan’s term, then a portion of ourselves extends into cyberspace while our physical vehicle remains firmly grounded in physical space.

    In that sense, adventures in cyberspace partake more of traditional notions of astral projection than they do of our travels through the physical world, and indeed, some of the most gifted cyberpunk writers convey a sense of travel through a VR universe that eerily resembles a high-tech version of the astral plane of the occultists.

    So perhaps cyberspace is perhaps best characterized as an “auxilary” space. An earlier example of such an auxilary space, with its own distinctive characteristics, is the place you go when you’re engrossed in a good book. And let’s not forget one of the earliest attempts to explain cyberspace as “the place you go when you’re on the phone”.

    If “architecture” is to be conceptualized as the design of space, then architecture of cyberspace as Lessig appears to concieve it, based on my reading of the crib notes, could be conceptualized as the characteristic design of that particular auxilary space.

    Now to extend the metaphor appropriately to the chemical realm, a next question emerges. Can our internal chemical environment, the “milieu interieur” of physiologist Claude Bernard, be considered as an auxilary space? My answer would be yes – and not merely one but several.

    Subjective space – This is where you go when you’re being introspective. This is the space we modify via psychoactive substances.

    Physical performance space – This is where we go when we work out or compete athletically. We modify this space through everything from taking steroids to routine hydration.

    Health space – This is where we go when we monitor whether our vehicle is in good repair. (I drive a car that is in chronically bad repair, and need to be constantly aware of its state of health, so that metaphor is very rich for me.) We alter this space via traditional and non-traditional medical, fitness and dietary practices.

    And I’m sure there are probably others that might be defined.

    Now the degree to which there is a legitimate social interest in regulating the design of those spaces would appear to rest on the extent to which they are *shared* spaces. Answering that question will provbably be an area of controversy.

    All for now,

  • Along similar lines. Was having an interesting discussion w/ black rock rangers of drug availability->usage this year (much more acid, less E, for instance) and how that affected life on playa. Definitely people seemed more inwardly focused, less engaged w/ strangers, felt like less citywide cohesion etc. Wondering how much that has to do with the sheer size of the city and other forces vs. the partyfavor portion of the city “architecture.”

    That’s an useful lens. The city in Brave New World was at LEAST as strongly shaped by the drugs the government pumped through air vents as it was by the streets it designed and built.