from architecture to urban planning: technology development in a networked age

Last week, i had drinks with Ian Rogers and Kareem Mayan and we were talking about shifts in the development of technology. Although all of us have made these arguments before in different forms, we hit upon a set of metaphors that i feel the need to highlight.

Complete with references to engineering, technology development was originally seen as a type of formalized production. You design, build and ship products. And then they’re out in the wild, removed from the production cycle until you make Version 2. Of course, it didn’t take long for people to realize that when they shipped flaws, they didn’t need to do a recall. Instead, they could just ship free updates in the form of Version 1.1.

As the world went web-a-rific, companies held onto the ship-final-products mentality in its stodgy archaic form. Until the forever-in-beta hit. I, for one, *love* the persistent beta. It signals that the system is continuously updating, never fully baked and meant to be organic. This is the way that it should be.

Web development is fundamentally different than packaged software. Because it is the web, there’s no vast distance between producers and consumers. Distribution channels cross space and time (much to the chagrin of most old skool industries). Particularly when it comes to social software, producers can live inside their creations, directly interact with those using the system, and evolve the system alongside the practices that are emerging. In fact, not only *can* they, they’re stupid to do anything else.

The same revolution has happened in writing. Sure, we still ship books but what does it mean to have the author have direct interaction with the reader like they do in blogging? It’s almost as though someone revived the author from the dead [1]. And maybe turned hir into a kind of peculiar looking Frankenstein who realizes that things aren’t quite right in interpretation-land but can’t make them right no matter what. Regardless, with the author able to directly connect to the reader, one must wonder how the process changes. For example, how is the audience imagined when its presence is persistent?

I’m reminded of a book by Stewart Brand – How Building Learn. In it, Brand talks about how buildings evolve over time based on their use and the aging that takes place. A building is not just the end-result of the designer, but co-constructed by the designer, nature, and the inhabitant over time. When i started thinking about technology as architecture, i realized the significance of that book. We cannot think about technologies as finalized products, but as evolving architectures. This should affect the design process at the getgo, but it also highlights the differences between physical and digital architectures. What would it mean if 92 million people were living in the house simultaneously with different expectations for what colors the walls should be painted? What would it mean if the architect was living inside the house and fighting with the family about the intention of the mantel?

The networked nature of web technologies brings the architect into the living room of the house, but the question still remains: what is the responsibility of a live-in architect? Coming in as an authority on the house does no good – in that way, the architect should still be dead. But should the architect just be a glorified fixer-upper/plumber/electrician? Should the architect support the aging of the house to allow it to become eccentric? Should the architect build new additions for the curious tenants? What should the architect be doing? One might think that the architect should just leave the place alone… but is this how digital sites evolve? Do they just need plumbers and electricians? Perhaps the architect is not just an architect but also an urban planner… It is not just the house that is of concern, but the entire city. How the city evolves depends on a whole variety of forces that are constantly in flux. Negotiating this large-scale system is daunting – the house seems so much more manageable. But 92 million people never lived in a single house together.

[1] Note to Barthes scholars: i’m being snippy here. I realize that the author’s authority should still be contested, that multiple interpretations are still valid, and that the author is still a product of social forces. I also realize that even as i’m writing this blogpost, its reading will be out of my control, but the reality is that i’ll still – as author – get all huffy and puffy and try to be understood. Damnit.

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7 thoughts on “from architecture to urban planning: technology development in a networked age

  1. Jim

    I enjoyed reading this. You are spot on with many points. To comment:
    I don’t believe Barthes was removing the author completely from the crime scene, just shifting the focus on the evidence a bit. Perhaps in regards to the presence of the author or the architect in the work it is worthwhile looking also at the genres asserted by and ascribed to it. Use or reading (reception, a la Wolfgang Iser) provides the work with its meaning and such acts can only be performed in relation to communities and may be classified afterwards in terms of genre.
    In town planning terms, a neighbourhood can go from “slum” to “bohemian quarter” (read: artists and musicians move in and make it cool) that results in subsequent “gentrification” altering it completely (into an expensive residential area) in a matter of years. Same streets, same buildings, even same businesses (here I am thinking of Brixton in London, or Kreutzberg in Berlin) but the people dominating the use of the space are now the consuming wealthy rather than those of the (soon “relocated”) resident community which produced living culture prior to intense commodification. Nothing has architecturally changed. The genre assigned to the space has radically altered interpretations of space, its uses and broader functions.
    Thanks for provocation.

  2. Jay Fienberg

    I like this comparison. But, I’ll suggest that the spectrum is maybe described in even more spread-out terms, e.g., between a “builder” and an “urban planner”.

    “Architecture” can be used to describe a big domain, whether in the realm of physical buildings, or info, etc. Some of it is more like construction (e.g., a garage remodel), and some more like urban planning (e.g., the Getty museum)…


    I think there is still a limiting viewpoint that gets built into “web companies”–to the degree that they model themselves after software companies.

    To use your comparison, what’s the point of refering to one’s neighborhood as being “my hood 2.0” or “my hood, beta”?

    I am still trying to find a good metaphor / comparison for this, but it’s something like having your neighborhood owned by some private commercial building company that is only looking out for your interests to the degree it fits into their business plan to sell more houses. I don’t think the web needs a lot of that, given its fundamental public-ness…

  3. crzwdjk

    And I think that permanent beta is a dumb idea and a cop out on the part of the companies that use that term. It gives them a handy excuse for not being able to make something that actually works. “Our website lost your account and lifetime’s worth of data? Oh but that’s to be expected. It’s a beta.” On the other hand, it is certainly true that software allows for frequent releases, and web based software even more so, and it’s probably a good thing as it allows software to evolve faster, get more feedback from the users as to what they actually want, and so on. The trick is making the releases more frequent without letting go of the whole notion of a “release”, something that is a finished product and ready for public consumption. Just calling it a beta is a poor excuse for being too lazy to debug properly. I suppose the builders of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge could’ve slapped a big “beta” label on it too.

  4. Sam Kinsley

    You’re analogy of ‘technology as architecture’ is apposite, in so far as architecture *is* a technology, however what I think you are actually driving at is that technologies are, and one might argue have been thorughout history, assemblages of relations that combine parts that might otherwise have been disperate, and reveal agency in many different ways.

    It is, then, through the ongoing becoming of a building that particular social situations and human actors can be said to ‘enrol’ technologies such as architecture/ buildings into actor-networks (after Latour, 1993). Thus one can understand the slightly confused notions of material agency Brand espouses in a more nuanced way; as the agency of matter is revealed in a processual becoming of people and things in complex realationships.

    Such ideas, as you might guess, are not new. If you wish to pursue an exploration of our changing socio-technical relationality I would strongly recommend reading Bruno Latour’s ‘We Have Never Been Modern’ (1993) and ‘Aramis, or the Love of Technology’ (1996); Tim Ingold’s ‘The Perception of the Environment’ (2000) and Bernard Tschumi’s ‘Architecture and Disjunction’ (1999). Also, you can’t go wrong with reading Deleuze & Guattari’s ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ to inform these readings, but then I’m of a poststructuralist persuasion 🙂

    Apologies if you already know/ have read these books, I hope that helps in some small way.

  5. nick k (inkeyes)

    Two books and a reference to read on this matter:

    Hillier, B., Space is the machine: A configurational theory of architecture. 1996, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Mitchell, W.J., City of bits: space, place and infobahn. 1995: MIT Press.

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    Hillier looks at how physical spaces can hamper or enhance communication patterns between groups of people.

    Mitchell also proposes that “community” is a function that can be identified, and designed into software systems (ie, what sorts of interactions should be facilitated)

    Raybourn, E.M., N. Kings, and J. Davies, Adding cultural signposts in adaptive community-based virtual environments. Interacting with Computers, 2003. 15(1): p. 91-107.

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