This interview is an example of how far “left-field” thinking is needed to go to contemplate an alternative to “Global Capital” to rather an idea of “Global Commonwealth” – is this another type of utopian dream?
BY DAMIAN HOLMES of LAND Reader : ” The Guardian has published an Interview with Benjamin H Bratton, director of the Center for Design and Geopolitics, Calit2 and University of California, San Diego as part of their Activate New York event to be held in late April. Bratton gives interesting insights into design, technology and urbanism including:
“Better design is a way of doing good in and of itself, one would assume. But what is better design? Better for what end?” – Can we design a more harmonious world?
“Tell us who you work for and what you do.
I am a writer. My work is a mix of social and political philosophy, architectural and urban theory, and computing and information infrastructure. I direct the Center for Design and Geopolitics at Calit2 at University of California, San Diego, where I work side-by-side with nanoengineers, biotechnologists, computational physicists, neuro-ontologists, and, of course, crazy artists. A lot of my recent thinking is at bratton.info and @bratton. Right now, I am writing a book on the the fate of cosmopolitanism in the era of planetary computation and post-humanism.
Cities cover 2% of the earth’s crust and account for 50% of the world’s population. Does this statistic fully highlight the importance of architects and designers in facilitating a harmonious world?
Only if we assume that architects and designers are responsible for the architecture and design of cities. They are and they aren’t. Cities are almost living things unto themselves, which we can certainly effect in particular ways, but which evolve according patterns in migratory networks, logistical networks, financial networks, informational networks, and so on. We may soon take for granted the notion that these impersonal processes have more to with the character of cities than any single master plan. This is not to say that we shouldn’t think hard about design, quite to the contrary. But our focus should be on thinking of the world’s cities as a single, massively-distributed urban organism, instead of little isolated fortresses.
Perhaps the main points of conflict for the near future for cities are between formal and informal urbanism on the one hand, and “open” vs. private urbanism on the other. Informal open spaces in many of the world’s fastest growing megacities are sites of both tremendous misery and tremendous vitality and invention. They are laboratories. For what, we don’t know yet. We also see the predominance of private, highly curated and securitized environments as a preferred affluent experience. Disney pioneered the top-down designed environment, but certainly it is a program that is global: from Apple to Dubai. (I see the Android vs. iOS theological schism ultimately playing out at the level of the digital environments we want to program. The hardware at stake is the city itself.)
Can willingness to do good in the world be promoted through better design, better architecture? What can be done to foster and encourage more social entrepreneurs and innovators?
Better design is a way of doing good in and of itself, one would assume. But what is better design? Better for what end? Design means “designation.” To design is not only to make. It is also propose, project and ultimately to determine the material structure of the world we share. It is both authorship and authority, and this is a good thing.
That said, I don’t believe that innovation ultimately comes down to people’s attitudes so much as to systemic opportunities for ideas to actually take root and scale. Part of the reason that the internet was able to support innovation from so many different places is that it was built on standard platforms and protocols that allowed each point-of-reception to also be a point-of-production. Because of platform neutrality –this is an ideal version, I realise– something that starts in one location can scale to become a global technique with less interference.
What if cities worked the same way? For me good urbanism means a healthy and playful mix of programs, of chance encounters, of interesting relationships with strangers, of cooperative experiences that are not dictated by shopping and entertainment, or worse, by security.
As bits and atoms interweave more closely into digital urbanism, this could produce very dull and lifeless spaces, with everyone locked into a “Groupon phenomenology” of point-chasing and accumulation, like autistic squirrels. Or it could turn the global city –our shared site condition– into a different sort of game, one with much more interesting and generative rules. “Beneath the pavement is a beach.”
Technology is being used as a tool to enlighten, educate, and liberate people around the world. How far would you agree with this statement?
Yes, and it does the opposite as well, both radically so. It always has. We need to stop thinking about technology as something that we “use.” Technology is a politics of life. The wish that if only we had bigger better technology then limits would be overcome is wrong. Increasing the computational capacity of a pathological system amplifies the pathology. Paul Virilio’s famous line, “the invention of a new technology is also the invention of a new accident” is axiomatic. The opposite is equally true: every new accident produces a new technology, but what kind?
The effects can be profound but unexpected, and much more disruptive than we might anticipate. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri write about the “commonwealth” as an opposite of the basic capitalisation of resources. If capital’s primary thrust is to bring things that are outside of the market into the market (land, genomes, languages, whatever) then what is the opposite of that process? Not “public” or “state” property, but a movement of something being the property of capital to being essentially unknowable at all. It goes from private property back to “not property.” One of the effects of digital media has been to transform things (music, software, movies, cultural labor of all sorts) that used to have a high exchange value and make them all but un-ownable. Recorded music has almost no exchange value. We still like it but we don’t buy it very much, and when we do we are mostly buying the service convenience of not having to deal with unreliable torrents.
In the long run, one of the deep effects of planetary computation (and I believe that history is largely still to come) may be a movement toward these kind of “commonwealths” but in parallel with an equally powerful movement toward the capitalisation and privatisation of everything imaginable. Perhaps these two processes somehow depend on each other?
What is the one thing that most holds back the changes you would like to make in the world?
The confusion of artificially cheap energy with genuinely free energy. A lot of our ecological thinking is based on the management of dwindling resources, and the stupefying fact that we have managed to blow through millions of years of oil in about one century. At the same time we need to at least conceptualise the possibility of not only genuinely renewable/sustainable energy, but also of practically infinite energy sources. This should be our long term goal: free electrons. If the politics of the future is the politics of energy, then perhaps Nikola Tesla will have his picture on our money.
What drives you to keep on innovating?
The fact that for all the ideas we put out into the world, they only really have impact if somebody else out there, perhaps someone I never meet, picks up on one –a turn of phrase perhaps– and makes use of it in ways I could never imagine. I produce the raw material and am happy to let others fashion it into good things. I don’t believe in visionary programs, nor do I believe that professional “innovators” do nearly as much direct good as they think they do, or are told that they do by adoring audiences. “Innovation” has become a content genre, a weird form of reality television, and one that is equally divorced from reality. For me, the way back to reality is an end-run. Always an end-run.
What can we expect from you at the Guardian’s Activate Summit in New York?
“Not only are the answers wrong, the questions are wrong too.”
Benjamin speaks at the Activate Summit in New York on the 28th April 2011 at the Paley Centre for Media. Be apart of it, book your place now