too much blog, too little architecture?

I received a number of interesting comments from folks on the recent Blogitecture panel with Kazys Varnelis and Mark Jarzombek at MIT [slideshow; my own text here on javierest]. Without putting words into their mouths (actual comments to follow in just a moment…), the most common criticism, in my interpretation, is that for all that was potentially powerful about the event, we failed at the same time to sufficiently address what blogs are doing to architectural production, or how they function as a form of architectural production in and of themselves. I can only add as a bit of an ‘out’ that the invitation to the panel asked us to think about the state of criticism and the possibilities for criticism, instead of talking about production. (Whether or not blogging is or ever was a form of “outside” criticism, as the general theme of the MIT HTC forum seemed to suggest, is another matter of debate).

Of course, one could ask what is criticism without the flip side of production? One makes the other (and neither one can be said to come first). Well, part of the problem may be, as I think Kazys Varnelis alluded to in an earlier email, is that it might be too soon to tell how production is changing… On the other hand, as some of the following comments will point to, it’s becoming clear that architecture students, for example, are already reinventing the ways in which ideas, an audience, and design development stack up on each other, altering the traditional chronologies of these processes along the way. Maybe a few practicing architects are doing so as well. In that sense, these comments are right on because theory and criticism are probably changing as we speak, hand in hand with production, and we have to try to get a better sense of how to frame the issue.

These comments are edited down for length, still trying to preserve the integrity of the ideas… And thanks for offering these, folks… Any omissions that would change the general sense of the original thoughts would be my own fault. Added links come from me.

Selections from an email by Enrique Ramirez [a456], on April 12, 2009:

One thing, for certain, it should be said that architecture websites are not “outside” forms of dialogue. Blogs, etc, are architecture production. Blogs do not influence architecture practice. Rather, they are part of it (ask Sam Jacob or Charles Holland). I also wonder if a new type of writing is on the horizon, one that is dictated by the conditions of online production. And on that note, I think more should be said about content. Whereas Mimi Zeiger’s Studio X panels seemed to cover a lot of the tools of online publishing (indexhibit, etc, etc), and the MIT HTC forum was a very significant and successful attempt at theorizing the state of architecture blogging and criticism, more needs to be said about how and why some things are ripe for coverage on blogs.

I say this because many, many of the blogs that I read seem to engage architecture in terms of their spatial qualities, and often not much else. Where’s talk about form, history, production, labor, etc?

Bryan Finoki, Subtopia, wrote on April 23, 2009:

The event only seemed to focus on one aspect of blogging: the consumptive side, and looked too generally I thought at the blogosphere rather broadly on the whole, and didn’t really get into the niche of architectural blogging.

The production side is where I see a lot of value there – people writing their own blogs, bringing in a written layer of self-reflexivity to their design process, learning how to talk about their work and others, thinking about architecture as perhaps it can only exist in written words.

I think this exploration would be far more interesting than the basic critiques of blogs as conduits for relaying other work, and as these popularity contests geared to drive traffic, the tricks and hooks bloggers use to attract readers, and so forth. I thought that critique was trite at this point, cliche criticism, frankly.

What is blogging actually doing for architecture, as a practice, in education (for students, faculty, adminsitraton), as design, as broadening what is often a narrow scope of what and how architecture can be referred to today? Has blogging impacted architectural relevancy on a wider scale? These seemed like questions that never got answered.

From Nam Henderson on April 14, 2009:

As for the impact of the “more accelerated pace of blogging and the production of architecture”, I think within the Archinect school blogs and various non-Archinect thesis blogs one does see a link between the dialogic aspect of blogging, and the end product. In this case though i suppose the question becomes is this any different than the dialogic process within studio. But the blog as studio writ large? And even if so, does this only become interesting once applicable within the actual built realm?

[NB. Elsewhere, see also some running commentary on Archinect... ]

It seems that the fact of the matter is that there is a lot more to learn about the complex networks taking shape somewhere between spaces of production (studio, office, library, etc), blogs, and the human brains that power all these. These inherently are spaces of making and critiquing as part and parcel of each other. As much as I also agree with the above comments, especially with Enrique’s point about the “oneness” of architecture and blogging, we also have to keep in mind that blogs still owe more to a production ideology rooted in Silicon Valley culture than to architecture’s various streams. Where it could get really interesting is if architecture blogs actually started to publish in experimental and markedly different ways from the blogosphere in general – without falling into the trap of making flash graphics, but striving for truly new social relations.

Now, not to suggest that any of the above comments are guilty of the following -because they simply aren’t- ultimately my own fear is that we often get carried away with the boosterism, asserting that any new reconfiguration of the relation between theory and making is a good one or that any free online technology is inherently democratic, and therefore would open up the design process or the politics of building and land use.

My own point in the panel really came down to trying to show that there are real social relations under the surface that often close off opportunity as much as they open it. I’m asking here if it’s even possible to start to know what’s happening to production if we don’t take a step back and understand the social realm in which that production is happening — or how blogging along with social networking of various sorts reshape relations of labor and, therefore, of spaces.

In addition, architecture—as a spatial discipline—is well-poised to examine and understand the kinds of spaces that blogs are producing. Are they actually as democratic as we think? Even if the multitiudes were fully participating (though, are they?), are blogs and such replacing more entrenched spatialities of gender, age, or race divisions?

Maybe these are still some open questions that, if addressed seriously, can expand the current objects of study in architecture which too often focus singularly on stuff like the suburbs, for example, in an atemporal and spatially isolated way, rather than treating these as relational and networked spaces. More important still, let’s address architecture’s rote presentation mechanisms. This last item—the dogmatic conventions of making and representing space—surprisingly have not changed much at all, while the world around them has definitely shifted. (Credit is certainly due there to Architecture for Humanity and its Open Architecture Network, for showing us one alternative model).

Finally, the fact that more and more architecture students now blog in and of itself perhaps is not interesting. What is interesting is the reactionary response this awakens from the academies, which have not allowed things like the vaunted thesis project to actually challenge the discipline with these new tools so far that I have seen. (Maybe it’s no coincidence that some of the more interesting work today is in design interaction departments). One of the only people, at least that I know of, that have realized the fact that architecture’s disciplinary boundaries have to change in this new context (and has also thought about how they might) is Bryan Boyer, who wrote for loudpaper: ” The work of the architect has never been more tied to all the specificities of client, market, place, and politics nor have the concerns of these groups ever been more enmeshed. Each format has its own set of catalytic constraints, biases, and conventions that the architect must work with.” That ‘format’ that Bryan Boyer discusses in the previous post is up for grabs—that much we now know—but have the schools or the established architects actually caught on?

“High Quality Rolex Replica Watches”

Let’s start with this seemingly simple question: Who blogs in society? What disciplines and professions are blogging as social groups?

To begin with, it is very difficult in the present day—if not impossible—to ascertain which professionals are blogging most, if in fact they are doing so as a part of their professional culture, or blogging about their profession itself. For this reason it’s also difficult to draw any conclusions about how architecture compares, not to mention how to distinguish such traditional professionals from bloggers that just blog as a profession in and of itself. What are they all blogging about? For what audiences? And who actually reads them? These questions would make an interesting long-term project to research for some people, like the Pew Center. That said, anecdotal evidence seems to indicate a remarkable presence of legal blogs, as well as a visible presence of influential, online special interest law projects (i.e. Electronic Frontier Foundation, Digitaldemocracy, the Berkman Center).

This might not come as a surprise, although it seems weird to hear, no? Those who dispense standard legal wisdom are also throwing that common sense to the wind, the web being the evidence flynet that it is, right? But upon second thought it makes sense. As Pew Internet research has confirmed, people spending most time online tend to be affluent (with salaries above 75K) and digitally-connected, awash in a fog of networked devices.

It seems that we are aware of the so-called digital-divide. We decry it, and even design against it. Nevertheless, many agree without question that online rights and personal identity should be a natural focus of thinking. Meanwhile, lawyers can use this logic to augment their disciplinary power. An influential slice of the digerati assume that there is a universal interest in abstract issues of privacy and digital rights. This common-place framing of the social problem is foundational even to the establishment of an everyday agreement of how you’re supposed to blog, starting with the very design and structure of blog pages and platforms. This also sets up an unwritten set of conventions that bloggers informally follow, perhaps indicating through sheer apathy to class and economic issues that blogging as a profession, or professions that blog, are a different thing than working.

bbstudy

The image above shows a micro-analysis of a snip of Boing Boing’s blog as the ur-blog: Highlighted portions indicate conventional blog devices. They also call attention to the ways in which “working” is camouflaged by blogs and is translated into a series of socio-communal actions and personalized rights. Related to this, we also have contradictions, such as the one between “trademark” and “defeat censorware”, which imagines somehow a utopia with private rights but without censorship. (For larger image, more examples, and discussion see the slideshow; image captured on March 29, 2009).

Continuing on…In other words, the more you have to log on, the more likely you are an educated professional of a certain income bracket or with certain cultural capital, and the more you’re likely to engage—as consumer or producer—with blogs. Privacy and rights have been heavily discussed in recent years, and yet labor time (as a blogger or a content contributor on social networking sites like Facebook, which are private content providers), or labor rights (as online producers), are not problematized much at all. If there is such a thing right now as a unifying consciousness of a blogger, it is one along the lines of being digital consumers with consumer right demands—not workers.*∞

Now, on the other hand, a glance at some of the most powerful blog platforms and social sharing sites (i.e. wordpress, blogger, technorati, delicious) can give us an idea of what content people are tagging online. What emerges often is a picture that shows professional identities and professional or academic categories becoming less important. For example, ‘medicine’ is no longer a privileged discipline (see image below, taken from wordpress.com on March 29, 2009; digitally altered to highlight tags). Web filtering seems to have less use for it than, say, ‘health,’ which emerges in its stead to cross disciplinary boundaries and interest areas. This lends the impression that the web democratizes content and spans the general public, the news media, and the professionals as equal agents in an even field, above wages. (Is there a coincidence in this phenomenon preceding one of the most massive periods of wage devaluation ever for journalists and other knowledge workers?)

wordpress

However, not everyone tags content. Tagging—the practice of cataloging online content in a publicly visible way—is a cousin to blogging. Both inevitably fall into specialized communities that socially privilege them more than other communities. One might reasonably assume that tech professionals (programmers, web designers, entrepreneurs) spend the most time blogging and cataloging content that is of interest to them, and a quick skim of delicious can bear this out. But then I would argue, that far from being a distorted metric of web culture, the amplification and dissemination of web literature through practices like blogging and tagging can then have an active, dialectical role in shaping the overall perception and culture of the web (architecture culture among it); a culture that slants more heavily to ideologies of innovation, progress, techno-fetishism, green salvation, and open-source—all these often refracted through a lens of masculinity.

In this light, the question is, then, how authority is established on the web, and does it really dissolve and reconfigure itself along with the seemingly disappearing boundaries? My tentative, unscientific conclusion to this is that while disciplines do get reconfigured—some of their members fading out into off-line irrelevance, perhaps—traditional disciplinary categories can gain traction and entrenchment as they adapt the dominant practices of the web as badges of authority, but all the while leaving powerful ideologies of the web alone, including malformed concepts of plurality, democracy, and the web as aspatial or post-geographical. Architecture talk on the web, of course, is not any different here and criticism has unfortunately not stepped in to respond. In addition, I have a crude suspicion that a fascination with informal architecture, an identifiable strain in architecture blogging (i.e. airoots), has been due to an unfortunate parallelism made by bloggers between representations of the web (as somehow free from state control) and slums.‡

Let’s close in on architecture for the sake of brevity. Let me talk for a moment about the most popular blogs in architecture. I think it’s important to remember that maybe to an extent, more than anything before them, blogs seem to achieve their buoyancy not from some baptismal light shone upon them by institutions of power, at least not always, and do achieve it from their virtual and real-life networks. As the popular wisdom goes, they achieve prominence through popular citation, organically rising to the top of the cumulus. Nonetheless, architecture blogging, probably like any other discipline online, also has a pyramidal structure that can greatly accelerate the vetting process from above to below—both online (as in Archinect’s school blog project; better postings are often selected for the news feed) as well as in real events like Postopolis, or from communities where the important architecture-related bloggers meet the Pantheon of West Coast digerati.

My own cursory count puts among others Inhabitat, the green-savvy, “future forward design for the world you inhabit” at the top of that heap. Also most influential is, of course—I think many of you know this—Geoff Manaugh’s laudable bldgblog: “architectural conjecture :: urban speculation :: landscape futures”. In addition to those, Dezeen, Interactive Architecture, Pruned, DailyDose, and MoCoLoco, a “modern and contemporary design blog,” seem to coalesce at the top of many lists. And then we have the one-and-only, Architecture for Humanity’s Cameron Sinclair, who seems to pop up everywhere. More than a blogger, he epitomizes the digitally-enhanced professional. Of course Archinect is pretty difficult to compare, as it is a network of websites under the tutelage of Paul Petrunia, that includes its news log (which is like saying an old school blog), the spaceinvading image “tumblelog”, and the school blog project. (Full disclosure: I’ve been the chief editor at Archinect and continue to be informally affiliated). And finally, you then have the utmost popular—though not exclusively architectural—Worldchanging, Treehugger, Curbed, and Gothamist blogs, which actually pay salaries at least to some of their bloggers, I believe. All these websites can be approximately ten to up to eight-hundred times more popular—I estimate—than blogs produced by academic types like us with academic-looking commentary, or with student projects.

The high quality of these top blogs is notable, and we can see that their meaning has found its way to smaller critical ventures, as with varnelis and htcexperiments debating fictional architecture through bldgblog, or my own recent interest in informality. It’s proof of the influence of these blogs. But what we haven’t come to relate into our discussion is how these class-A bloggers establish a networked presence that sustains and nourishes their perch at the top of the pyramid—and do so at the basic level by constantly laboring (for free) in digital mines like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Archinect commentary boards, and incessantly tapping on their phones with their various online networks.

What I think is interesting is not how much more popular the popular blogs are, though I think the numbers are quite staggering, if they are anywhere close to correct. But what I think is important is that, alongside the limits of digital rights talk, I don’t feel that we have developed anything remotely like a critical consciousness toward the spatial relations of power on the web, let alone figured out some way of carving a space for academic work that can be either independent or critical of those relations, and begin to spatialize it on and off line, like the Berkman Center does.§ Nor have we begun to articulate in a serious way a critique of the ideologies of the dominant strains in the blogosphere and perhaps it is because we’re still caught in a fantasy of evenness cutting across the web, still stuck in the shadow of Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth (see Turner, 2006).

Just to give you one sample tweet from a fellow blogger who writes for both a national publication online and his own sustainability blog: “one last point. news orgs: assume you are part of a news ecosystem. People draw info from their own unruly mob of sources.” I disagree with such notions of an “unruly mob”. It’s a rule-bound mob. What’s worse is that we continually miss the opportunity to actively investigate these rules, as both social and spatial, especially as they course from the web into social life and back. One can already imagine a day when some will look back and still see an idealized Agora that never existed.

What might be needed now is an architectural imagination that can problematize the cartographies and ideologies of the web, showing that far from the boundary-less stew—an ideal, conflict-less space—they are bordered, spatialized, and conflicting in particular ways, probably along some lines of labor mobility and flexibility. “Elsewhere Mapping” has been done, now what about the simple ‘where’? Does architecture have something to contribute beyond the green proselytizing, the fetishism of informal architecture, the datamining, and the spectacular forms of dezeen?

How would we begin this project? Well, in a way, as much as I admire my friends that throw Postopolis, there’s something about it that doesn’t seem to jive for me. As a space of encounters it replicates the privileged space of the blogosphere (which, as I discussed above, is in itself hidden by an informal communalism). In a way, they curate an eternal present. They do it extremely well. But if one wanted to investigate some of the “hidden” spaces of the web, and start to investigate our little-understood lack of spatial rights, we might actually begin by inviting bloggers from dead architecture blogs and ask them to talk about their own history. Why did they stop? What are the limits of blogging as it currently stands? In other words, we can begin to develop a critical memory in a space that does not (seem to) forget anything.

—–

Notes:
*On the point of multiple forms of labor , see Terranova, 2003: “It is about specific forms of production (Web design, multimedia production, digital services, and so on), but is also about forms of labor we do not immediately recognize as such: chat, real-life stories, mailing lists, amateur newsletters, and so on. These types of cultural and technical labor are not produced by capitalism in any direct, cause-and-effect fashion; that is, they have not developed simply as an answer to the economic needs of capital. However, they have developed in relation to the expansion of the cultural industries and are part of a process of economic experimentation with the creation of monetary value out of knowledge/culture/affect.”

∞ For more examples of the discourse of blogger rights, speech protection, and consumer rights see EFF’s Blogger Rights or the Center for Digital Democracy’s project on Digital Marketing, Privacy & the Public Interest. This digitally-altered image shows the selectivity of rights discourse (accessed on the EFF website on April 5, 2009).

effstudy

‡ An example: “The Net Generation in particular recognizes itself in the story of this self-developing city, which is powered by the collective intelligence and individual aspirations of hundreds of thousands of people.” From: “Taking the Slum Out of Dharavi” in airoots, February 21, 2009. Accessed on April 12, 2009.

§ On this subject, see Jo Guldi’s “Reinventing the Academic Journal: First, Take Down Your Website” on inscape, February 7, 2009 (Last accessed on April 12, 2009). Guldi explains how the academy could begin to spatialize itself on line as a kind of endowed (I assume) curator of the glut of online content, but so far journals have approached the web with some trepidation.

###

This work was presented at the MIT HTC Forum on April 7, 2009, as part of “Blogitecture: Architecture on the Internet”, with Kazys Varnelis and the author, (and moderated by Mark Jarzombek). Audio slide show available on Vimeo thanks to Kazys Varnelis. New modifications and edits for clarity have been introduced in this version.

The title of this talk and post comes from typical spam that I receive multiple times a day, but also relates to the subject matter at hand.

Additional Reading:

  • Janet Abrams and Peter Hall, Editors. 2006. Else/Where: Mapping; New Cartologies of Networks and Territories. University of Minnesota Design Institute.
  • Javier Arbona. 2009. “Revisit the Known World”, javierest. February 23.
  • Jo Guldi. 2009. “The Age of Digital Citation”. unimaginable inscape. April 8. link
  • _____. 2009. “Reinventing the Academic Journal”. unimaginable inscape. February 7. link
  • Mary Madden, Sydney Jones. 2008. “Networked Workers”. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Washington, DC: September 24. link
  • Tiziana Terranova. 2003. “Free Labour: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy”. electronic book review. 6/20. link
  • Fred Turner. 2006. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. link

• More sources consulted for this project are bookmarked at: http://delicious.com/javierarbona/for-mit

Acknowledgements:

My thanks go to Anne R. Kenney, Cornell University’s Carl A. Kroch University Librarian, for our enlightening (and fortuitous) conversation about digital archives and her knowledge of law profession blogs, as we rode on a bus from New York city to Ithaca, on March 21, 2009. Plataforma Arquitectura’s David Basulto, aka Tricky, was also a very generous email interlocutor as I thought out this talk, and thanks to Cristobal García for putting us (back) in touch.

Kazys Varnelis, although technically a co-presenter in this instance, was also a wonderful collaborator in the research leading up to the panel. Amber Frid-Jimenez dropped on me a number of very interesting articles after the talk which I still have to digest further. And last but certainly not least, at MIT, many thanks to Mark Jarzombek, Rebecca Uchill, Sarah Katz, and Kate Brearly for putting this event together and coordinating.