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Rene Daalder
Los Angeles, US
Immortal since Jan 18, 2007
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    Notes from the digital diaspora
    Project: Polytopia
    Besides an occasional landmark building, the cities we live in aren’t all that different from the urban settings we’ve had to contend with since the day we were born, the most conspicuous variable being that there is more of it. But for those of us who are engaged with culture as an ever-changing expression of the zeitgeist it can be frustrating to live in a time capsule that exhibits the frozen relics of an otherwise long forgotten past. The main reason for this is architecture’s inherent immutability. Once erected, a building’s walls rigidly maintain the status quo while the culture at large constantly reinvents itself.

    As SpaceCollective contributor Greg Lynn puts it in his book Animate Form: “More than even their traditional role of providing shelter, architects are expected to provide culture with stasis. Because of its dedication to permanence, architecture is one of the last modes of thought based on the inert.” By contrast, today’s prevalent mindset, as exemplified by the internet, is all about breaking down boundaries between established and emerging forces, pitting yesterday’s top down hierarchies against the bottom up rule of the online population, and promoting the hegemony of the immaterial over the material world.

    By now we’re all familiar with the successful online community Second Life and its virtual landmass exceeding the area of Greater Boston, where people are effectively leading their double lives. It won’t be long before social networks like this will be fully immersive 3D environments where players can talk to each other in real-time lip sync while consummating their online relationships via telepresence, achieved through the transmission of stimuli from one location to the next.

    It is interesting to realize that the standoff between digital space and the built environment were at the heart of the two most recent downturns of the economy: On the one hand the dot com bubble of the late ‘90s and on the other the mortgage crisis which recently caused the real estate market to collapse. Meanwhile, the online world is thriving. Although by no means an economist these subsequent recessions somehow struck me as being tied to a clash between the old and the new vying for dominance of a world in transition.

    Because of the internet every traditional institution is suddenly subject to a wholesale transformation of its historical model, from the entertainment industry’s losses due to illegal downloading of its content, the waning import of the print media and academia’s changing role in the age of the search engine, to the economy’s response to globalization facilitated by the web.

    Until now architecture didn’t seem much affected by the emergence of this new world order, but it becomes ever harder to deny the unmistakable symptoms of a rapidly emerging digital diaspora. As more immersive internet strategies keep presenting themselves in the form of a million different services offered by the limitless digital information space, people will continue to transcend the physical restrictions of their residences as they expand their lifestyles ever further beyond their local zip codes.

    From an architectural standpoint it may be somewhat depressing to realize that the real estate in Second Life, where the imagination runs free, nevertheless mostly consists of the same old ranch houses and McMansions people prefer in the outside world. However it is the reality of the built environment itself that is to blame for this state of affairs. After all, these virtual houses closely resemble the places many of us were born in and have been surrounded by for generations. This is the stasis we have lived with all our lives. Indeed, besides the occasional cultural landmark, we have little reason to assume that the world will ever look any different, be it outside our doorstep, online or in the future.

    If, by contrast, you were to link up the computers of every one of Greg Lynn’s colleagues and students who produced virtual buildings for years, their combined output of computer-designed architecture would provide the online community with an alluring animated city the likes of which we’ve never seen before, neither in reality nor in science-fiction films

    So far few architects have been inclined to settle the unruly frontier of the internet because they’re way too busy promoting their buildings in the “real” world, even though in today’s economic climate that has become a rather hopeless task. Yet some of them, like the Argentinian designer Hernan Diaz Alonso, who studied under Greg and now has his own worldwide following, would rather break into the movies than sacrifice their lives at the altar of the built environment. Greg’s own work made it into the movies after being appropriated for the production design of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. And as you can see in this video clip he made with frequent collaborator Imaginary Forces, he at least considers the potentials of what architect Rem Koolhaas once called the “(digital) “revolution that seems about to melt all that is solid.”

    The problem architecture faces is that today’s technologies are beginning to merge with our minds, creating levels of immersion and interaction with which physical embodiment can no longer catch up.

    Historically, cities may have served as magnificent aggregators of human activities, elevating rural lifestyles to unprecedented levels of sophistication, but in the age of hyper-connectivity it becomes clear that the built environment is a major contributor to its inhabitants’ relative isolation. For more than half a century this walled in condition was alleviated by one way broadcast media but it is now busted open by the digital diaspora that is increasingly effecting our contemporary existence. In this context, people invariably raise the issue that the body does not migrate into the virtual world, but, as Edward Castronova argues in his book Exodus to the Virtual World, “that is not important...where you are is where you are looking. Gaze is location."

    In fact there is much less of a dichotomy between artificial and actual reality than most observers of the phenomenon acknowledge. The digital infrastructure is everywhere which allows people to free up their bodies and go anywhere in the physical world while remaining connected to our online “home.” This, more than anything, may ultimately re-vitalize today’s urban landscape. Besides the familiar internet connections in coffee shops, one can imagine a new generation of virtual flâneurs. In the 19th Century a flâneur was a person who walked the city in order to experience it or to actively participate in street life, not unlike the critical explorations of the built environment the Situationists called dérives.

    Today’s versions of these escapades in the analog world would be enhanced by the capacity of new-style urban drifters to tap into a seamless overlay of digital connections wherever they would go, infusing physical reality with potentials and narratives that would otherwise have been obscured by the buildings’ opaque demeanor.

    As I put it in an earlier post

    in the streets we may know what lies behind the facades of every store or public building, giving us an instant impression of its tagged contents, and people will have devices, as they did in a Japanese  experiment, transmitting and receiving each other’s personal profiles, alerting them to the presence of compatible others. In this ultra-serendipitous environment we will experience far more advanced forms of socializing which will infuse the world with a plethora of social and romantic opportunities that have eluded us so far.

    Ever since the 19th Century young people, who in Germany were referred to as Wandervogel (meaning migrating birds), have been seeking an alternative to the bourgeois lifestyles that had taken them hostage, which in those days often meant losing themselves in nature.

    However, short of literally getting lost — which is not nearly as easy in the age of satellites and GPS — today we can have the best of both worlds.

    Thanks to the digital diaspora geography is no longer destiny as physical distance can be negotiated from any location and the virtual realm shows ever more potential for near physical immersion. The Japanese term for Virtual Reality translates into English as Intimate Presence, which is a great way to suggest the “real time” interactions that are currently facilitated by the web. Even though this immersiveness is still hampered by a poor visual component due to the current lack of available bandwidth, the analog and digital realms continue to merge as entire generations of internet users are engaging in a frenzy of instantaneous connectivity. The more the web will become an all-encompassing immersive place, the more we will be able to live in multiple dimensions at once without ever losing touch with the extended worldwide community that will be along for the ride wherever they or we may physically reside. This marriage of virtual and actual presence will provide us with a range of visceral and mental experiences that will increasingly transcend all boundaries that restrict us today.

    Somewhere along this trajectory we will be ready for our impending migration into the shared mind space that is foreshadowed in so many contributions to SpaceCollective under the aegis of the Polytopia project.

    Indeed, it would appear that in preparation for this event we are currently in the process of rewiring our brains, optimizing our personal relationships, expanding our access to knowledge and capitalizing on our collective intelligence, all of which in a bygone era were bogged down by the noise of a vast cognitive waste that we are finally learning to overcome.

    Wed, May 6, 2009  Permanent link

    Sent to project: Polytopia
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