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Keller Easterling on “information in real space”

The Technocracy movement, formed in the late 1920s and early 1930s, proposed replacing politicians with scientists and engineers, and opposed acts of political revolution.

The April issue of e-flux journal, guest edited by Nikolaus Hirsch, includes an essay by Keller Easterling entitled “IIRS” which investigates “information in real space” and the capacity of architects, urbanists and political activists to improvise within informational contingencies and develop an interplay between things, in relation to other informational structures. This interplay offers alternative infrastructures that emphasize agency and the development of interpolating skills rather than the identification of objects.

Architects still long to be modern like the old days. Having put faith in every successive new technology, believing in the obsolescence of the old and the superiority of the “new,” architecture easily flocks toward ubiquitous computing, smart cities, and the “internet of things.” OSARC (open source architecture) proposes a universal digital platform for the design and production of space in which, they argue, many of the modernists’ dreams can finally be realized. A new technology like Google Car will solve transportation problems. With something like Airbnb, we see tools to make architecture dance to immaterial instructions. New technologies will finally deliver the dematerialization of space into information.

Yet, setting aside, even inverting, some default dispositions that attend universal, liberal, technocratic scripts, what previously obscured or sidelined information becomes available? What if there is no one and the many, but only the many? What if there is no quest for an elementary particle or a Turing-complete platform? What if there is no real desire for liberalism but rather a curiosity about maintaining individual rights through counterbalancing obligation—a fascination not with freedom but with friction? What if there is no primitive separation of mind and body? And might it become tedious to continually herd after another technology with calls for retooling and obsolescence? An alternative habit of mind would value the coexistence of multiple, counterbalancing, contradictory logics, looking not for the next superior subsuming platform but a disposition of interplay between different coexisting platforms of information. Might this ratcheting or reciprocal interplay enrich rather than restrict information?

There are architects who “know how.” They have mental faculties that allow them to walk over a field and subsequently draw its topographic map or predict the size of an upstairs bedroom in relation to an interest rate. Hyperaware of multiple levers and faders in urban space, they might think of changing a street by increasing the number of times a train stops there. They can mentally model the way a tax structure will eviscerate a city or the way a toxic building will topple all the buildings around it. Rather than a master plan for a city, they can design a growth protocol with a counterbalancing calculus of public and private space. They imagine collapsing the morphology of airports by reconceptualizing the departure lounge. They adjust the capacities of an entire highway network by altering the repertoire of one switch within it. They initiate a long-term process for organizing the forests and vantage points of a mountain range. They deliberately craft a seductive cultural story or persuasion to have explicit spatial consequences. They change suburban morphology by designing a detail that becomes contagious within a population of houses. Like the comedian who learned to tell jokes to keep his parents from fighting, an architect might even know how to deftly deploy a spatial variable to reduce the violence of binaries or dissipate monistic concentrations of authority—a spatial variable that might fly under the radar of political declaration.

The contemporary production of space intensifies the power of “knowing how” or the art of manipulating active forms within a spatial information system. Unfocusing to see not only buildings but also the almost infrastructural matrix space in which the building is suspended, it is clear that countless repeatable formulas and recipes make the most of the space in the world. Resorts, golf courses, malls, suburbs, retail, and now entire cities like free zones are designed as “spatial products.” Currently, McKinsey consultants, World Bank yes-men, financial quants, or management specialists make space as a by-product of econometrics or some other technical apparatus. Space is a secret weapon of the most powerful people on earth, but perhaps a secret best kept from the very people who are trained to make space. But an architect can hack the protocols of the most contagious spatial products. Active forms—things like multipliers, valves, governors, or switches—are the spatial equivalent of code for the heavy bulky world. Rather than object or declaration, they direct spatial processes as carriers of information. The more formulaic this matrix space, the more difficult it is to design object form, but the easier it is to design active form—to exploit the existing multipliers in the matrix with amplifying effects. This matrix that architects regard as the negative space or the unknowable opposite of object form offers not only new aesthetic pleasures but also new political capacities.

Read the full article on the e-flux journal website.