Monday, March 17, 2008

The Problems with Progress

“The good life would then be a matter of abandoning critique’s desire for an eternal, immovable fulcrum with which to block the rolling stone of modernity. The good life might be a matter of appreciating, on an everyday level, that vectoral flux and change is ontology itself. One’s enclosures are temporary, and if built as such, one need feel much less anxiety about its passing.” — McKenzie Wark, “Telegram from Nowhere,” Mutations (edited by Stefano Boeri, Harvard Project on the City, Muliplicity, and Jean Attali, 2001)
I picked up a very silly book this morning, called Mutations. It’s about 750 pages, but doubtful if anyone would ever (has ever, could ever, was ever intended to) read it as a traditional Western book — front to back, upper left to lower right, with the expectation that the words accumulate into a story or an argument. My partner described it as a “hallucinatory fantasy,” although I believe it was intended as a compilation of thoughts in architectural theory. Its authors would likely find “hallucinatory fantasy” to be a compliment, and would write more unintelligible things about it.

The book has something in common with a newspaper, which is also not intended to be read in continuity. It has more in common with the Internet, intended to be used by hopping (though here there are no hyperlinks, no connections that an author has claimed to be sensible or useful, so one merely hops about with less intellectual intention than a rabbit, who at least has the goal of fresh clover).

But there is one common theme here, which is the same tripartite theme that has been sounded since (roughly) the middle of the 19th century:
  1. the present is fundamentally different than the past
  2. the future will be unknowably different than the present
  3. this change is and has always been and will always be either unquestionably good (as with the Futurists) or morally neutral (as with most Postmodernists)
This is a remarkably superficial understanding of change, rooted in the speed of technological innovation and ignoring the many stabilities of human experience. It is undoubtedly true that building construction has fundamentally changed from a stacking technology to an assembly technology. It is undoubtedly true that the camera has changed our visual language, that recording and broadcasting has changed our relationship to sound, that the immediacy of electronic communication has eliminated many of the barriers presented by distance and topography, and that the word processor/laser printer/blog has diminished some of the power differences between “authors” and the rest of us.

And there is no reason to imagine that technological process will slow down. According to the computing axiom called Moore’s Law, the number of transistors that can be inexpensively placed on a computer chip will double every two years. This single change will drive everything from communications media (are CD’s already obsolete?) to manufacturing (small household objects “printed” on your home rapid-prototyping unit) to health care (nanobots flowing through your bloodstream to destroy virus cells). In fact, the inventor Ray Kurzweil insists that it will be almost impossible to distinguish ourselves from machines within the next 40 years or so because of biotechnology and artificial intelligence; as machines grow more “human” and humans grow more mechanical, the differences between us will increasingly blur until an event he calls The Singularity, arriving in 2045. Mark your calendars.

Pondering the future seems to lead to one of three flavors of response:
  1. the utopia, in which ideal circumstances (however defined) can finally be achieved;
  2. the dystopia, in which unintended consequences are larger than those for which we hoped; and
  3. the public policy endeavor, in which social and technical systems are seen as largely comprehensible, subject to rational intervention, and managed carefully through tuning in response to ongoing analysis.
But the political philosopher Marshall Berman suggests that the future warrants all three of these responses simultaneously. His 1982 book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity is a remarkable exploration of the ways that “progress” is always beneficial and destructive, always manageable and untamed, and which always drags the unwilling (traditionalists of varying sorts) along into lives that they have not chosen and do not consent to. “Progress” is merely power by another name, benefiting those with the resources to manage change and drowning those without.

I’ll write more about this in another post. My intention here is to begin my own thinking about how so much of architectural theory — these shallow and inelegant utopias — has paradoxically remained inert for more than a century.

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