In 1972, as part of MoMA’s exhibition “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape,” the Radical Design group Superstudio installed a small cubic room with mirrored walls that appeared to replicate itself into infinity. The group’s proposal, submitted to the curator Emilio Ambasz, had taken the form of a one-page statement describing exactly how this “microenvironment” should be installed, followed by a further nine typed pages of theoretical exposition by Superstudio’s cofounder Adolfo Natalini. In those nine pages—a manifesto of sorts, veering off into prose poems and short stories—Natalini outlines a new way of living. The attributes of this hypothetical existence include “permanent nomadism,” “life without objects,” and “life without work.” These conditions are made possible by a mysterious gridded structure that Natalini refers to only as “the network.”
It is only too easy to root around in the archives, extract something highly selective, and proclaim this or that radical to have been prophetic. In this case, however, Natalini’s vision appears uncannily prescient. Of course, “the network” of his imagination was simply an act of wish fulfillment—he hadn’t the slightest idea what it was exactly (although, by coincidence, 1972 was also the year that ARPANET was first demonstrated in public), he knew only that it was a “total system of communication.” In Superstudio’s photo-collages, it took the form of a grid—either an abstract gridded plane or a gridded megastructure called The Continuous Monument. Theirs was only a mock utopia, serving to critique both modernism and consumerism, and yet, ineluctably, the network came to pass. It is not, however, a megastructure. In fact, for all intents and purposes—for the majority who cannot see the server farms and the undersea cables—it is invisible.
The effects of the network age on urban life in the early twenty-first century are roughly as Natalini predicted, if less utopian. Immaterial labor has led to a flexible but precarious existence in which, for the young at least, “permanent nomadism” is not so far from the truth. Objects, meanwhile, are dematerializing into live streams, downloads, e-books, smartphone apps, and the so-called “sharing economy.” We have witnessed the primacy of software over hardware.
Most significantly, what we think of as “domestic space” is being completely redefined. We need look no further than the rise and rise of Airbnb. The rental website epitomizes a new era of nomadic, vicarious living, in which one can simply slip into different lifestyles like dresses. Its evangelists proclaim a utopian mission of sharing over owning (CEO Brian Chesky famously claims not to own a home), and like good neo-Marxists they talk of use-value rather than exchange-value. But of course Airbnb enables a global population to be part of the rentier class. It is as much a symptom of precarity as of networked living—it is the means by which many now pay their own rents and mortgages. Airbnb is what we have instead of state-subsidized affordable housing, and it is leading to the wholesale commodification of domestic space.
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