Technology is the answer—but what was the question?

—Cedric Price

Just 20 years ago, Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab, anticipated that the post-information age would remove the limitations of geography. Digital living, he said, would allow transmission of place itself. (1) This prediction that technology would destroy distance and that our physicality would lose relevance did not hold true; rather, it expanded the meaning of physical space by making it more complex and inseparable from its digital dimension. (2)

The translation of the built environment into digital information—through robotics, big data, and smart sensors—creates a new definition of what is spatial. (3) As the industrial revolution drove automation at the turn of the nineteenth century, the social, cultural, and political motives ever-present in open discussions and behind closed doors gave shape to social values and standards that define today’s cities. If we are in an age of a similar turn, it seems that currently ubiquitous techno-optimism and the sheer pace of development is thwarting our ability keep stride with any adequate scrutiny. While optimization and efficiency become the highest regarded value systems for maximization of profit, all other values seem to be deemed irrelevant.

Whether at home or in the public realm, the digitalization of our space comes with a shifting locus of power. The four most powerful tech giants, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon—known collectively as GAFA—keep track of every step we take in order to know our needs before we do, from highly personal scales to the scale of the environment and the city. The urban realm has become an arena for technological experimentation that happens without our conscious participation.

“Cyberspace,” the sharing economy, cryptocurrency, and AI all emerged from a quest for equality, yet their utopian manifestoes increasingly project capitalist agendas and their expanding reach raises concerns of very significant violations of public privacy, security, and that very equailty they set out to protect. Is the internet a public utility? Can Bitcoin build sustainable wealth when mining a transaction costs more than powering a home? Where does the individual stand in a fully networked and digital society? Are we reduced to consumers or elevated as agents by our seemingly limitless options for customized existence? How will projects like sustainability or community, in opposition to fast-paced consumption, retain relevance? How will architecture adapt, reconfigure, and develop to shelter us from our digital shadows and provide structure in our augmented lives? Will it preserve the elements of human existence that cannot be reduced to an algorithm and sold for cash?

Data and numbers offer quantifiable truths, but output is not debate and technology as a force that acts on and within human societies and global ecologies is anything but neutral. As technological change rushes relentlessly forward architects play catch up, pushed to consider a blurring of our foundational dichotomies: interior/exterior, public/private, urban/rural. Volume 39 seeks critical perspectives on the role of technology within the built environment. We are interested in the social, economic, political, and ecological implications of technological “progress” as it relates to architecture, design, and urbanism, and in examinations of the role of architecture that go beyond a purely reactionary model. How should we extend the definitions of architecture and urban design to encompass virtual places as well as physical ones? Digital modernity is upon us, and the human is still at the centre of this paradigm shift, determining the courses charted by our machines. Who do our choices leave behind and who do they empower?

(1) Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital (New York: Alfred A Knopf,1995), 165.

(2) Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel, City of Tomorrow, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 16.

(3) Chistoph Thun-Hohenstein, Sense and Sensibility in the Digital Age, (Vienna Biennale 2017 Catalogue).


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