Recompose Now: What Decentralized Networks Can Learn from the Architectural History of Brasilia

Photo by Marcel Gautherot — Brasilia under construction

Before 1956, Brasilia was a grass embankment, embraced by the natural curve of lake Paranoá. Then construction began on what would become the nation’s capital. Superblocks of buildings, radio towers, and vast plazas were constructed. Lake Paranoá’s volume was increased through damming so as to accommodate the city. Supply chains of road and rail were created and expanded in order to transport the equipment and resources needed for the city’s construction. Within four years, a remote piece of grazing land had been transformed into a modern metropolis.

The sweeping plan of the city, shaped like the outspread wings of an eagle, embodied the economic and political dreams of midcentury Brasil. Conceived of even before independence, Brasilia was to be the focal point of the intense economic growth required for the former colony to assert itself as global power. Hoping to achieve “fifty years of progress in five,” the city hoped to erase the human functions of infrastructure, creating spatial protocols of economy rather than community. Urban planner, Lucio Costa, was explicit in his intentions. The city was not envisioned for the public. Streets were not to be gathering places, but instead “corridors” of transportation.

Brasilia was designed to facilitate economic protocols. This was at the cost of residents’ quality life. Zoning made it difficult for residents to live near their jobs. Housing shortages were a constant issue. The modernist vision also clashed with the tropical environment. Wide vistas were exposed to the sun, making walking unpleasant. Large sections of paved concrete reflected light, making the city uncomfortably bright. Focused on the success of the Brazilian economy both environmental and human factors were ignored.

Photo by Cyrille Weiner — Man walking across one of the vistas of downtown Brasilia

The same is true of global market infrastructure. Benjamin Bratton argues that networked infrastructure exists at a global scale and is the defining architectural feature of our time. Consisting of energy grids, ports, satelites, communication networks, undersea cables, stock markets, cloud infrastructure and personal computing devices, this network is responsible for many economic protocols. Crucially, it is this network that manages the extraction of minerals from the earth, and regulates manufacturing functions. The network is also responsible for the distribution of these resources, electronically monitoring and managing the electrical grids of towns, cities, municipalities, and entire nations. In this way, the network imposes the ideology of the marketplace upon the surface of the planet.

The influence of digital networks can been seen plainly in establishing economic dominance. For example, Amazon uses predictive algorithms to distribute goods between its warehouses, anticipating specific demands before they are realized within the consumer conscience. Amazon is known for rapid shipping, not because it has better transportation, but because it has effectively leveraged the power of the network. Combining its predictive algorithms, server power, and internet of things technology, transportation becomes one component within a series of networks. Early on, Amazon invested heavily in server power. Though most know the company for its online store, one of Amazon’s largest profit generator remains its web services (including online hosting, and analytics). It is this network supremacy that has ultimately been the driving force behind the company’s success.

Photo by Marcel Gautherot — The new city

The influence of the network not only operates within the material world, but actively alters it. In order to increase the frequency and speed of automated trading between the New York and Chicago stock exchanges, new cables are laid between the two cities. In order to eliminate as much lag as possible, the cable are designed to connect the two cities along the straightest possible line. Every few years, alterations are made to reduce the the travel time. In order to create the most efficient network possible, some have even proposed drones carrying microwave receivers to be perpetually stationed in the air to create a relay of unparalleled efficiency.

Architect and theorist, Keller Easterling, notes through the control of infrastructure, cities act as operating systems. Though zoning and the allocation of services, cities determine specific architectural and economic outcomes. These rules form a material protocol layer within which expansion, renovation and business take place. This was clearly the goal with Brasilia. Costa was not merely designing the footprint of a city, he was attempting to develop the infrastructural protocols of utopia.

Though infrastructure appears to be immutabile, it can serve as a fruitful site of recomposition. From the beginning, residents of Brasilia deviated from the plans. The numbers of workers exceeded the amount of temporary housing erected. As such, workers began constructing their own settlements, developing services and neighborhoods parallel to demand. These settlements stood in stark contrast to the grandiose boulevards of the capital. Focused on residential needs and the material concerns of the citizens, the settlements, ironically, more closely resembled favelas than the modernist utopia envision by those in charge of Brasilia’s construction. Yet these were often the most comfortable settlements in the new capital. Twenty years after the inauguration of Brasilia, 75% of the city lived in unplanned communities, founded by construction workers.

In a similar way, networks can be recomposed. In fact, the fluid nature of network protocol is far more sympathetic to such actions. Unlike the city, where protocols are realized in cement and rebar, network protocols are pulses of light. The fluidity of the network combined with their central position within the global economy make them key sites of recomposition. Not only do alterations in the protocol influence the production of value, the influence they exert may be greater than that of governments.

Networks extend the vision of the state, collecting data, enabling surveillance and predictive vision (most notorious are examples of predictive policing, but this can also refer to predictive traffic patterns, or natural disaster prediction systems). While the government may support these projects, such capabilities are only enabled by proprietary protocols. In this way, the state benefits from network infrastructure while the network maintains a level of sovereignty. Networks are also transnational, existing beyond traditional political boundaries. Events in one region can ripple across distant networks. For example Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has altered the UX patterns of most major domains, despite the fact that rules only apply to a small number of users. In this way, the network infrastructure is able to supercede governmental bodies.

Photo by Cyrille Weiner — Recomposing use of space within Brasilia

Some online communities are deeply aware of this and are actively attempting subvert the power of network infrastructure. Shermin Voshmgir, director of the Cryptoeconomics Research Lab says that this is a moment to “redefine value creation.” Working with the government of Vienna, Voshmgir has been investigating blockchain use cases that would incentivise a more sustainable society. One use case she is exploring is a protocol that would ensure the ethical sourcing of products. However, Voshmgir’s long term goal is to develop a blockchain protocol that orients value creation around carbon sequestration. Fundamentally, she is suggesting an economy in which measures of sustainability, not capital, are the driving force. What’s required is recoding network protocols. Voshmgir insists we must work to develop an “operating system for a new kind of society.” There is not time to spare.

Interestingly, some Blockchain projects have been linked to the infrastructure of cities. Like the vernacular settlements of construction workers, projects on the decentralized web can create a framework within in which many individuals can build and recompose—all while operating within existing network infrastructure. As Theodor Beutel writes, these networks “employ market-based mechanisms to decentralize incentivisation but are not restricted to either market-based nor internalizing measures for distributing power and competence; thus, they enable new forms of organizations that are neither firms nor markets.” While blockchain protocols create opportunities for recomposition, they also create novel structures for the communities to exert and organize power.

Brasilia has had a strained relationship with improvised settlements. Though vernacular techniques were responsible for maintaining the quality of life for residents, these communities existed in a shaky symbiosis. Though providing much needed services, intense political organizing and community solidarity were required for these communities to survive. Officials in Brasilia made concerted efforts to destroy workers’ communities. Through the election of local residents, the political tide shifted. It was only through concerted grassroots efforts that legal rulings eventually affirmed these unplanned settlements.

I suspect the same will be true of decentralized networks. In addition to exploiting protocol, intense political and legal leverage will be required. There is no time to waste. Just as improvised settlements sustained Brasilia, we require network recomposition to mitigate the most destructive impulses of capitalism. What’s needed are vernacular solutions and stop gap measures sourced from communities. The workers that constructed communities around Brasilia were cognizant of both human needs and local environmental factors. They laid their brick and mortar accordingly. We must do the same with the protocols that govern the networks of the global economy.