Nowhere to Hide

Designing disconnected architecture for a digital future

Fraser Morrison
Aug 9, 2018 · 12 min read
Image: Produced by Author

Today we are amid the fourth industrial revolution that will usher in a plethora of new technologies that we simply aren’t prepared for.

The Internet of Things is an all-encompassing digital network that facilitates the communication and exchange of data between all objects with an on/off switch. There is no universal plan as to how this network will be managed, who will design it, what policies it will need to abide by, and how people will deal with the changes it will bring to the built environment. It is an all-digital network that will completely disrupt our physical environments.

As designers, we need to understand the impact that the internet will have, and design spaces that could be disconnected from such a system.

Disconnected spaces will allow us to pause, to reflect, and to interact in a way that technology simply can’t quantify.

Technology in the everyday

I am writing on my laptop in a hipster coffee shop (which admittedly I love), drinking a flat white that I paid for with my contactless card with their wireless, internet-enabled card reader. I am using Google docs, my wireless mouse, and their free Wi-Fi to quickly read the news and procrastinate on social media. I am connected to the internet, to the digital, but disconnected from the physical, the real. In an instant, technology has removed me from my environment. I now sit alone in a full cafe of people, cocooned from reality. Tapping my contactless card again and again, I leave a digital trail behind me. This trail is then geolocated, time-verified, and picked up by my bank, Google, Amazon, and Instagram. They instantly know where I’ve been and what I ate, and it is all quantified and added to my data profile. Technology is no longer a choice, it is inherent in our being.

Digital Evolution

Today’s digital environment is the aftermath of a series of industrial revolutions in which the world has undergone dramatic, large-scale change.

The first industrial revolution transformed water into steam to generate power and mechanize production. The second used electric power to usher in a new era of mass production, and the third used electronics and information technology to automate production.

We are now experiencing the fourth revolution. Although the fourth builds on the principles of the third, it is fundamentally different. It fuses technologies together, and blurs the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. It is distinct in its own right, because of its scope, speed, and systems that will dramatically change the human condition. The technologies of the fourth industrial revolution are evolving at an exponential rate, in a way that has no historical precedent. The revolution is disrupting every industry on a global scale, forcing them to transform entire systems of production, management, and governance.

Mix of connected devices in 2017. Image: Produced by Author

New technologies like augmented reality, digital fabrication, cryptocurrency, blockchain, automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence will soon be fundamental parts of our daily routines. The overall success of these new technologies relies on the new digital infrastructure, the Internet of Things (IoT). The Internet of Things is a digital revolution with no historical precedent, invisible to the human eye. In 2017, it was reported that over 27 billion devices were connected to the IoT, with a projected 125 Billion to be connected by 2050. For everything physical in the world, there will eventually be a mirroring digital counterpart. While the technologies will come into full-scale implementation soon, the IoT is happening now, all around us, including in our built-environment.

The Internet of Things has the potential to make things easier for people, through implementation in everything from healthcare systems to new infrastructure programmes. It aims to streamline processes and procedures and connect more people than ever before to the rest of the world. However today it connects various devices, services, and vendors together to capture data that can be used to measure and control the world around us. The Internet of Things uses everything from lamp posts and public parks, to offices and coffee shops, to museums and transport systems. In doing so, space has become a measured, controlled, data-filled entity.

Expressing Technology through Architecture

Spaces that project data. Image: Produced by Author

How then did we end up living in an environment where these new systems have infested our built environment? With each new revolution comes new technology, and with each new technology comes new architecture. However, it was only in the late 1960’s that technology became a true part of architectural language. Using new techniques from engineering and construction, the high-tech movement used lightweight materials and exposed services to create a more legible architectural language.

Architects such as Norman Foster and Richard Rogers were ready to adopt these techniques from engineering and other technologies, which allowed them to create a new spatial language, with large open floor plates that could be reconfigured over time. High-tech buildings such as the Pompidou Centre, have everything from pipes and air ducts, to its steely structure and glass skin, on display. Through its transparency and honesty about how the building was made, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano created a building that doesn’t hide, instead it creates a legible visual language through architecture. However, as critics of the time observed, the interior only aids the neoliberal agenda: more open space means more revenue.

While some buildings still borrow from the ideas of high-tech, technology has moved on, and so too has architecture. Presently, architects have become more concerned with hiding the mess of everyday life away, creating an architecture that celebrates a purity in form.

Zaha Hadid sought to simplify space and in doing so, create more fluid spaces. Patrik Schumacher describes the act of simplifying as ‘an effortless display of sophistication.’ However, Schumacher’s comment belies the fact that the production of such spaces wasn’t effortless. To make this kind of architecture, still requires a lot of work, complex engineering, and time. Architects are now hiding things in plain sight, in pursuit of ‘effortless sophistication.’

It is not just the complex construction that architects are more increasingly trying to hide. This simplicity in form enabled by technology, also present in the high-tech movement, hides the element of control.

In buildings such as the BMW factory in Leipzig, they use this so called ‘elegance’ to as Douglas Spencer writes in his book Architectural Neoliberalism:

“conceal subjection of the worker to the new conditions of labor in neoliberalism, and that of architecture in accommodating itself to the new managerialism.”

Architecture has become a key component of the neoliberal agenda, and in turn, so has the architect.

With the Internet of Things, architects will soon need to design for a system that for the most part isn’t visible. This could lead to more hidden components, or as in films such as Blade Runner 2049, putting these new technologies on display could create a diverse new architecture that is both digital and distinctly tactile.

Amazon has already begun fusing tactility with digital processes and so too could architecture, integrating these new systems would allow interaction with physical spaces like never before.

What the IoT means for our built environment

Mike Kuniarsky, a pioneer of the Internet of Things, describes it as a state of being, where ‘computation and data communication are embedded in, and distributed through, our entire environment.’ Whereas the futurist Adam Greenfield in his book Radical Technologies sees the Internet of Things for what it is: ‘the colonization of everyday life by information processing.’

Because of its inherent connectivity, the Internet of Things has a fluidity that is quickly growing into every aspect of our lives. The Internet of Things is united by a single goal: to measure and control the world around us by capturing and measuring data. Therefore making it difficult to predict what the Internet of Things will look like in 2050 due to the rate at which it is growing. Adam Greenfield believes it manifests in our daily lives through three different scales: the quantified self, the smart home, and the smart city.

Whilst wearable biometric devices are aimed at rigorous performance-based self-mastery for the quantified self, the Internet of Things will have the most influence on our homes and cities.

How the IoT will enable us to have ‘smart’ homes

Presently a lot of devices that utilize the IoT are nothing more than conventional objects with added connectivity. However, companies like Amazon have been re-inventing the way you interact digitally and physically with products like the Amazon dash button. Controlled by an app on your phone, the dash button is an object that couldn’t have existed without the internet.

When someone runs out of washing up liquid, they can place an order with Amazon directly by clicking on Amazon’s Dash Button. While it saves them time, Amazon now has precious data on how often they run out of certain products. Your home has now become a space for Amazon’s gain. It is no longer private.

While the dash button is using our homes for commercial gain, it will also help a lot of people. Families could organize food for their ageing parents, so if they ran out of milk all they would need to do is press a button. If it takes people an hour to pop out and get cat food, or they are caught up with running their kids to school, the dash button would give this time back. As all this additional time drops off, it allows people to enjoy their homes more, these spaces no longer become neglected by busy lives.

They become homes.

How the IoT will change the city

Great exhibition for the age of data. Image: Produced by Author

Most people are aware that mobile phones are continually harvesting data about daily routines and activities. Beyond what is on our person, it is difficult to imagine how streetscapes, parks, and public buildings are utilized to glean data from human behavior. While it is easier to believe that this data harvesting is only for the betterment of society, it is important to note that there is also an aspect of control.

This data enables those who design these networks to utilize space, energy, and other resources often without question or consequence.

Networked information gathering devices are everywhere, particularly in our public spaces, such as CCTV cameras, vending machines, digital advertisements equipped with biometric sensors, and indoor micro-positioning sensors. These sensors are referred to as ‘beacons’ because when combined with a smartphone app they send signals providing information about nearby services and products. Because of these digital systems, the line between what is indoors and outdoors will become blurred.

These systems generally appear as retrofitted, almost inexplicable boxes that cling to buildings. Soon we will be dating buildings not by their architectural style, but by analyzing the amalgamation of technology attached to them. Whilst these faceless objects obscure and disrupt the architecture that was never intended to house such paraphernalia, this is where the visible elements of the Internet of Things end. Literally embedded in walls and hidden under pavements, a sea of technology hides below the surface.

Adam Greenfield describes the issue with this:

“However opaque they may be, and whatever the original inspiration underlying their placement, all of these things are ultimately there for a single purpose: to gather facts about some condition or activity transpiring in the public way, and raise them to the network.”

The main concern he brings forth is about who is governing these devices, who gets the data, and who owns it, especially when it may belong to the people who create it every day. Most of the data we generate is stored generally without our knowledge and this totalitarian method is no better described than by global technology company Siemens:

“Several decades from now, cities will have countless autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of user’s habits and energy consumption and provide optimum services. The goal of such a city is to optimally regulate and control resources by means of autonomous IT systems.”

In several decades our cities will be much bigger, with a projected addition of 2.5 billion people to urban areas. With this growth brings more diversity, many different communities, and much more human interaction. This statement is both explicit and vague about the future. It is explicit about the need to control and regulate, and vague about who will do the controlling and regulating.

While the design of the systems is generic and bland, it could be said that in the future, a new visual language could be used to communicate who is using the data. Different systems could take different forms dependent on what they record and visually broadcast who is recording.

We need to move towards a more transparent society and redesigning these generic surveillance objects would create an awareness of the systems in use.

These systems could also move from being a one-way system, to a two-way portal in which people can choose what data they do and don’t want to be recorded.

With companies like Google already mediating over 90–95% of search requests in Europe and USA we should be able to both see where our produced data is going and be able to control it. The dash button could also be configured to transmit what data they can collect, and what data is private.

The architecture becomes a physical regulator. The boundary is both reinforced as a physical entity, and as a digital one. Data availability is no longer guaranteed from every individual, instead the individual takes control of it, levelling the field of play.

How can we disconnect spaces to bring us back to the idea of the self?

If we continue to ignore the effects of mass data collection by the global elite, we run the risk of giving over physical and digital selves. In 1968, before our cities were ever digitally enabled by the likes of Google, Henri Lefebvre outlined what he referred to as the ‘right to the city’.

In ‘Urban Revolution’ he discusses how the great potential of our built environment should be experienced by everyone, not just large multinational corporations and powerful elites. In order for us to reclaim and grow a more inclusive, egalitarian city, things would need to change amongst those who drive urban politics and inequality — the state, the police, and landlords.

However, a lot has changed in 50 years, and while the aforementioned parties still exist, the modern mediators of our society are a completely different extreme from those of Lefevre’s period. Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Uber, eBay, all collect data daily, gaining detailed information that the state, landlords, and the police have little to no access to. In 2017, Instagram had over 800 million monthly users posting images to their app, whilst Facebook has over 2 billion people in its network alone.

These dominant digital presences have the power to reproduce and change our material reality in an instant. With Facebook improperly using more than 87 million users’ data without their knowledge, we need to ask important questions now about what rights we have as citizens, not just to public and private spaces, but also to their digital equivalents.

The issue with this is that these things take time, and while municipalities fight over who controls the data, we in turn fight for our right to decide what they do with our data. Meanwhile google is still collecting millions of bytes of data, selling, storing, controlling it.

How can we escape this? In response to Lefebvre, David Hardy said, ‘the right to the city is far more than individual liberty… it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city’. By becoming more aware and proactive about our data, and how the internet of things works, we should be able to propose ways of changing the city for everyone. The Internet of Things has the potential to create real change and a better society, but this can only be done if all people engage.

To engage with these issues, we need to start disconnecting from technologies. The more connected we are through technology, the more we live in the digital and less in the physical. As our cities get even bigger, we will need to design new architecture that isn’t dependent on technology, instead these spaces should be a return to a simpler form of space, uncluttered by technology.

Architecture that is disconnected could see buildings return to a more honest form of expression. With this more manual way of interacting with spaces allowing us to reconnect with how we use space.

For instance, with the eventual implementation of automated cars, the roads will no longer need to be as wide, because the cars will be able to drive closer together. This gives us the opportunity to reclaim previously unused space to create real and meaningful change to the public realm.

Reclaiming space taken up by previous technologies would create new opportunities for architects to design in spaces never conceived for people. More of the city would have access to green space as these leftover pieces of infrastructure could be reintegrated into the urban fabric. Creating architecture that is purposefully disconnected could also lead to a more vibrant and diverse architecture around the world as we learn to design for in-between spaces created by off cast technology.

The thing that makes people different from other animals is the way in which we interact.

Technology has allowed us to transcend traditional forms of communication and interaction, but disconnecting from technology is extremely important for us to connect to what it is that makes us truly human.

Disconnecting aspects of architecture from our built environment allows for imperfections, chance meetings, and relationships to flourish.

If everything is seamless and streamlined, there is less room to pause, to take a step back, to innovate.

Fraser Morrison

Written by

Agent of change for The London School of Architecture, researching the implications of technology on our urban environment.

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