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On Network Culture: Kazys Varnelis in conversation with The Straddler

On Wednesday, September 21st, The Straddler met with Kazys Varnelis in Manhattan’s Times Square.

Varnelis, an architectural historian, is the Director of the Network Architectural Lab at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. The Lab “investigates the impact of computation and communications on architecture,” and seeks to understand how “transformations in communications reflect and affect the broader socioeconomic milieu.” He is the author (with Robert Sumrell) of Blue Monday: Stories of Absurd Realities and Natural Philosophies, and edited a volume on infrastructure, network culture, and Los Angeles entitled The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles. He is currently at work on a new book, Culture in an Age of Networks: A Critical History, chapters from which he is posting in draft form here.

Kazys Varnelis, September 21, 2011
As a historian, I worry that we have lost our ability to think historically about the present day. From the eighteenth century through the 1980s, we situated ouserves in the world using historical modes of explanation. But then something changed. Jean Baudrillard talked about this quite a bit in the 1990s. He said that in our media-saturated environment, we are so overexposed to events that we are unable to order them or make sense of them anymore. Instead, he suggested that we were caught up in a millenarianism, obsessing about the end of things, most notably the “end of history”—invoking Fukuyama and the end of the history hypothesis—and that we would even cease talking about that once we were done counting down to the millennium. And it’s as if we did.

Yes, there are moments like 9/11, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, or the financial crash, and maybe in hindsight we will be able to put these in some kind of better framework. But the sense that history has any kind of lived reality has in many ways come to an end. Books that are consumed today don’t aim to situate us historically. Histories of Salt, Cod, Oysters, or Bananas proliferate. There are countless secret histories and microhistories of events in the past, but we have precious few successful attempts to situate ourselves historically. While there were problems with everyone reading Oswald Spengler, there were also some real benefits in people thinking of themselves as part of a historical continuum. I feel like we aren’t able to do that at all right now, and so as a result we aren’t able to reflect critically on our world.

If there’s anything I’m out to do, it is to suggest that we need to do that again, even if historical modes of explanation aren’t popular anymore. Particularly so because—to use James Kwak’s point about ideology being successful when you don’t recognize it as an ideology[1]—the ideology of network culture eschews history for a technologized now. Now, of course the Internet and mobile technologies have transformed our lives, in many ways for the better. But they’ve been accompanied with an ideology that we used to have this bad old hierarchical world and now we live in this wonderful world of emergent networks. And that with that, we’ve achieved a more just and better society in which our voices will be heard. There is this idea that is so dominant today—among those people whom we might formerly have considered liberals, or the left—that we live in a much more participatory democracy than has ever happened before. And while it’s true that everyone can, for example, create a blog, the unfettered effects of networks lead to greater and greater concentrations of power.

Explaining and justifying all of this is a sociologically and mathematically informed network theory, “small world” hypotheses, attempts to explain epidemics through networks, mathematical theories of networks, and so on. Now there are good people trying to do good science to explain the world in this framework, but in so doing, they generally wind up validating the idea that a society based on network theory is good and proper.

But if you were to look into the origins of network theory, it’s in the work of a man named Vilfredo Pareto. He was an Italian economist and sociologist writing in the early part of the last century trying to account for the way that society organizes itself, and he came up with the famous 80/20 rule. Why is it that 80 percent of the wealth winds up being in the hands of 20 percent of the population? Why is it that 80 percent of the web pages that are read are on 20 percent of the sites? This is the Pareto principle. And Pareto wasn’t out there to promote democracy. He was doing this research because he thought those 20 percent should rule society. Ultimately when Mussolini became familiar with his ideas, he said, “this is exactly what we need.” And while we don’t want to just say Pareto was this bad guy and that’s all there is to it, his model of an unfettered economy, unfettered networks, and unfettered communication creates conditions for ever-greater concentrations of power. You can look at the average wage in 1980 versus the average wage today. In real dollars, it’s gone down for the average American. Meanwhile, for the very rich it has skyrocketed.

Network theory, in other words, sets out to validate a model of society that is based on the idea of influence, power, and wealth accumulating to a small number of well-connected individuals.

So that’s the first part of the problem. The second one is how cities have been refigured lately in what I call the urban ideology. It goes something like this: the emergence of the global city in the last twenty years is proof that cities are absolutely the number one form of human habitation, that they are where we should put all our efforts as a society—that cities are good and suburbs are bad, people who dwell in the former are good, people who dwell in the latter are bad. But what has been lost in the urban ideology is thought about what kind of other transformations are going on. First of all, many cities—Detroit or Utica of course, but even Chicago—have been losers in this. We’re seeing the Pareto Principle at work with cities. Second, we’ve seen a tremendous loss of diversity in those cities. The poor and the working class have been priced out of Manhattan. Although there are still some rent-controlled apartments left, and there is a dwindling amount of public housing left. If you look at who’s leaving Manhattan, and who’s left it in the last two decades, it’s the poor and the working class.

This is no longer a place—New York City as a whole, with some exceptions in Staten Island and Queens—where you’re going if you’re a poor immigrant eager to make it in a better place. If you’re an immigrant, you’re going to places like Passaic or Paterson in New Jersey. So what happens is you get these kind of communities that are suburbs but that are increasingly communities of immigrants. That’s where people from Central and South America will be moving. Communities that are poor and working class. On the other hand, other suburbs are becoming communities of the elderly. And of course African Americans who are leaving Manhattan are moving to communities like these as well—places like Newburgh. These become very easy targets for defunding. They don’t have the kind of political clout that a large city does. Moreover once we’ve called them “the bad suburbs” (even though Paterson and Newburgh are actually small cities), we can dismiss them easily.

City cores are now rather accepting of anyone with money, be they wealthy South American immigrants or upper middle-class African Americans. So the city core is this integrated city, in which we can smile at each other and say it’s okay, we’re all hip, we’re not racists. But if you look at who is being kicked out, it’s becoming a very class-based city (and the class that’s being kicked out is black or brown). And that’s something that’s very dangerous.

San Francisco is the epitome of this condition. Rebecca Solnit wrote Hollow City, an interesting ode to San Francisco as a place she loved but that had become too expensive not just for her doctor’s nurse to have an apartment in, but for her doctor to have an office in. What does that mean to a city? Aren’t cities, from a cultural point of view, supposed to be places of diversity? And I don’t just mean racial diversity—of course racial diversity isn’t that important if we’re all alike. I mean class diversity, too, and we aren’t getting that. Both need to come together. Louis Kahn once said that “A city is the place of availabilities. It is the place where a small boy, as he walks through it, may see something that will tell him what he wants to do his whole life.” Isn’t this, rather than the gentrified version of the Village portrayed in Sex in the City, what we should be seeking?

And while it’s certainly safer—when I walk around after midnight, I don’t expect I am going to be mugged—it’s no longer a place of incredible cultural energy. I’m afraid that we might be getting into this period of cultural stasis. What’s it going to be like to grow up here in the future where everyone is like you? Maybe they’re African-American, or African, for that matter, or Asian, or Mexican—or maybe you are—but they’ve all got as much money or more than you do, and you’re all at least middle class. Isn’t there some utility to thinking about others who aren’t part of the same system as you are?

A figure like Michael Bloomberg is the perfect example of network culture, naturalizing our belief that we are living in a post-ideological age. In certain ways, he’s to the left of Obama. In certain ways, he’s to the right. He’s too smart to be either a Republican or a Democrat. But he’s also the richest man in the city, and the twelfth-richest man in the country. He owns major media operations, including the financial services information that dominates Wall Street—this other form of news, which you and I don’t have access to. Having a Bloomberg Terminal puts you in a different class of human entirely. This is something that is a tremendous problem, and should make us question the possibilities of something like network culture. For everything we’re told about how your ideas can get out there, why is it that more than ever we are being ruled by oligarchs?

But since we’re all out running around the streets with our smartphones checking into FourSquare and posting our political opinions on Twitter, it all seems like things are better than ever. Technology is coupled with what Barbrook & Cameron call the Californian ideology—1960s hippie individualism merged with technology and the belief that rather than fight for social justice and economic equality, one would fight primarily for individual rights. Gender or racial rights aren’t bad, but that’s where the effort went. The focus was towards realization of the self as opposed to broader, more communally based politics. And as that has happened, it was wedded to a technocratic belief in the virtues of the network—people writing in the 80s and the 90s about how technology will allow us to live in a real Jeffersonian democracy; good ideas will get heard, bad ideas will somehow be occluded by some mysterious process. We won’t need these rancorous battles in Washington. Of course nothing of the sort has happened.

But again, is network culture an accelerant or a cause? Society was undergoing certain changes and certain technologies came into being in the 80s and 90s partly because they were hunted for by that society, as corporations began to break down the boundaries of the eight-hour day, for example. How do you have an eight-hour day if you need to talk to someone in China? Conversely, there was more travel, so you have the rise of the cell phone. New technologies were invented to make this thing possible, to make it work for us better. Same thing with the laptop. And these technologies found a happy home. Companies like Apple and Microsoft are responding to perceived needs. So there is kind of a feedback effect to this—and this is something that is very much a part of network culture. The kind of feedback loops that are being created that wind up validating themselves. We’re getting into a situation where things are accelerating more and more rapidly towards this direction of unfettered networks, of privatization, coupled with a strange grinding to a halt of the gears of democracy.

Perversely, I think—and I don’t know how we’re going to do this—if we wanted to solve our problems, we need to work counterintuitively and produce new forms of top-down planning. Obviously, this would be the case in any kind of income redistribution. In the case of the Democrats, it’s amazing to see them cave to their deep-pocketed funders and say, “oh no, we’re not those bad people, we’re not socialists.” But it’s also the case on infrastructure and regional planning and this is something I’ve been investigating for a while. We’re focusing more and more on individual units—like, let’s say, New York City, whether it’s a cell phone company or the Port Authority. What’s happening is that these different agents wind up in such competition with each other that they prevent the kind of projects we need to get done from getting done. This has been happening for decades. It’s an artifact of the complexity of society.

But the danger—to play devil’s advocate—is more of the Bloomberg phenomenon. The danger is that we say we need someone who has proven so capable of changing everything that they are the only option. That seems to be the only model we’re finding for political figures who are attractive to us. The ones who are able to “cut through the crap.”

The way out isn’t so easy. The first step would be to become aware of this condition. It’s huge, but we are so willing to give our rights away in exchange for trinkets at a carnival.

Let’s take privacy. If you look at George Orwell’s 1984—discounting the fact that Big Brother is patently evil—we grew up reading this novel and thinking of it as an unimaginable totalitarian world where your every move was tracked. In any successful global city you are tracked at all times by CCTV cameras. They may not be linked together, but you are tracked at all times. The assisted GPS that your cell phone has is there not for you to take advantage of Google Maps. It’s for the police to identify where you are. Everything you send over the Internet is trackable, if not outrightly tracked. And it’s not only governments, but corporations that are doing this. Think of Google. And what’s also scary is that this has happened even though there hasn’t been a totalitarian regime put in place.

We need to have an international debate about whether these are rights that we should give up, how much we should give up, and how that information could be used. We need to become aware of this supposed Jeffersonian democracy that we really aren’t living in and try to figure out whether there aren’t other kinds of political structures. Look at the Arab Spring. Yes, there was a Twitter component, but there wouldn’t have been any point to that if people hadn’t been in the street. And that’s another example. Very rapidly, in so many of those cases, many of those technologies were shut down once they came to be seen as a danger. Do we have safeguards in place to say the government would never do that to Occupy Wall Street? In many ways, we don’t.

Another part of network culture that we need to be aware of is the restructuring of the economy from the late 70s through the 90s. If you had a relatively solid job—and more and more people didn’t—your pension plan was reconfigured as a 401(k) plan. This was something that was done in the 1980s by the government—it was sold as a supplement to your pension, but of course it became the primary form of pension in America. In many countries as well pensions have been cooked up into investments. There has even been talk on the right of putting Social Security in the market.

Now suppose you believe something as simple as corporations don’t pay enough taxes. How are you going to reconcile that—the impact that would have on the market—with the impact that would have on your own future? If the market goes down, it will ultimately hurt your retirement. I think this is extremely dangerous because it helps us become players in the system and forces us deeper into it. Not to mention the fact that we all, generally speaking, have tremendous amounts of debt. College debt, mortgage debt, credit card debt. You’re trapped on both sides.

I’m an architectural historian and people ask me, how does this play out in architecture? Well, the rise of neomodernism in architecture goes hand in hand with the rise of network culture. Postmodernism came to an end, historical references ended, and it’s almost as if we came into a new modernity. When you think about the attitude towards technology in the late 60s through the early 90s, there was a sense that maybe technology had run its course. We’re no longer going to the moon, 2001 wasn’t going to happen the way we had expected. We had TV and cable and VCRs, but it wasn’t very different from TV in the 50s. And then things began to change. Computers that had been hobbyist tools suddenly became very powerful. They were networked together, and the networking became more important than the tool by itself. They became lighter and they became mobile. Mobile phones began to spread. The Internet allowed you to find anything anywhere. So there’s this kind of beginning of us, as a culture, becoming in love with technology again and becoming technology oriented again.

That’s had a great deal to do with this rise of neomodernism. The new focus on glass and steel sets out to embody network culture quite literally through transparency. That was always there in modernism, but the idea now is that the transparency represents the greater fluidity of the enterprise. In this interview, we’re chatting in the New York Times building, a building that was meant to be less a building and more a technological device. That’s how it is figured. Tradition, yes, but also “this is the most advanced form of media there is.”

The urban ideology that I set out earlier couples with this model of architecture so that the latter sees its role within the city as that of accelerating the status quo, as opposed to seeking to temper it, and trying to imagine other realties: trying to imagine a better and more just city, for example. There are some architects who do this, but there are precious few and they don’t get much public attention. The profession always has to deal with money, but there were times when it had greater aspirations. Architects used to believe they could address questions of social justice. That is something that has kind of drifted away.

We look at public housing projects and say, well, they failed. They failed for a variety of reasons, not all of which were so obvious. In Sweden, for example, a lot of people live in what we call social housing. Rather than saying, well, they’re unique and an exception, maybe we should find out why, broadly speaking, they have succeeded. And maybe we should see what social housing has succeeded in this country as well, as opposed to only looking at the problems. Maybe we should try to find out what kind of a better life we could create for a broader population, rather than just focusing on the toys of the wealthy, which is something that architecture has really done over the last twenty years. You look at the starchitecture of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, Renzo Piano—the architecture of the day that captures the critical eye is also the architecture of great wealth. It’s an architecture of the elite. I think we have to ask ourselves in our lifetime if we’re seeking to create monuments, or if we’re seeking to create livable places.

And since we’re tying the future of the city to finance, we need to be well aware that the number of jobs are continually being cut. There are fewer jobs in that field in Manhattan now than there were in 1988. These companies—no matter how mercenary we may think their employees are in some cases—are as mercenary as anyone could get. They are willing to cut and automate as much as possible. And of course that becomes a model for other corporations. So then you have to ask yourself, what does the city become?I think the answer is that the city becomes a sort of tourist destination. A sink for over-accumulated capital. A place where capital burns up in fashion, in tourism, and in institutions like the universities. Look at Columbia and NYU becoming the top real estate entities in the city.

So do we wind up becoming like Venice? Is it just a place to visit that is in a slow, steady, multi-century-long decline? The writing is on the wall for that unless we figure out what else to do in the city.

Above all this, one of the things that concerns me about the future is the question of complexity. Joseph Tainer, an archeologist, wrote a book in 1989 called The Collapse of Complex Societies, in which he looked at why societies fail. His argument is that as societies grow, they become more and more specialized. They begin to require larger bureaucracies, whatever that bureaucracy might be—it could be the government, it could be insurance, it could be financial instruments. And they become more specialized. So we don’t just have people who build buildings, we have architects. We don’t just have architects, we have professors of architecture. We don’t just have professors of architecture, but we have historians of architecture. And so on.

So things get narrower and narrower. In a peasant society, you might have thirty different societal roles. Now you have thousands if not millions of roles in a given city. Anything that isn’t directly contributing to the energy load of the society, generating energy somehow to keep all of this afloat, is ultimately—although it’s very important and leads to a better quality of life—a kind of drain on it. As we become a more complex society, so much is becoming intertwined that, not only are we building these extreme specializations, they are also greatly linked.

Moreover, network technologies have added a huge amount of tertiary complexity to society during the last couple of decades. Things like the iPhone are supposed to make things better, but inevitably they just make things worse. That’s a huge part of network culture. For example, a telephone line fell off the house I was living in. I called Verizon. I was a subscriber to their fiber-optic system FiOS. It asked me to type in my phone number. It sends you to the FiOS line. I say, I don’t want you, I want copper wire. There is a telephone wire lying on the ground. They couldn’t transfer me. They said they would take the message. For a month they said they would take the message. I talked to supervisors. I yelled. I screamed. The person next door was a litigator. She tried the same thing. It didn’t work. Finally I just happened to talk to a woman who said, I can take care of this. I know someone who, if I put this on her desk, it will be fixed. And what must have happened was that this woman’s sister or husband worked in copper wire. So a month later, this live telephone wire was put away.

This kind of thing happens all the time. We become, as Bruce Sterling has said, these tech wranglers. Even to get the most minor thing done, we have to deal with this impossibility, this failing world of ultra complexity. And I think that’s a danger. So much of our energy goes into this. Whether it’s filling out insurance forms the correct way to get reimbursed, or dealing with the misreading of our MRI, or the car that thinks our airbag has failed, when it hasn’t. It seems like it is a very dark part of network culture. Certainly no corporations really want us to spend all that time doing that, and yet that failure has been so built in to the system that now it seems like we can’t get out. Like when you call one of these companies to deal with it and they say, we’re experiencing heavier than usual call volume. They always say that. You’re always on the line for an hour. It never gets any better.

How much can we put up with this before it all comes to a crashing halt? We just dodged a bullet in August when the hurricane missed us, but think of what would have happened if we had had the twelve-foot storm surge. I mean, just put twelve feet of water on top of a manhole, and there goes everything underneath it. A crisis could happen in which we wouldn’t get services back in place for a very, very long time. Last week we had no power for four days due to a freak snowstorm.[2] How long can we consider these once-in-a-lifetime events? A real danger is that next time we’ll lose our cell service and it’ll be impossible to communicate. Or if the new technologies all go down at once for some reason: a cyberattack, an earthquake, some kind of foreseeable solar event. It could be very hard to bounce back. The main thing we could do right now is become more aware and open up a national debate about this. These things are of crucial and critical urgency and we need to think about them more.

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