The Luddites would have loved mixed reality.

In the previous post, I wrote about the potential benefits of using mixed reality in architectural design and fabrication. The combination of Hololens, software communication protocols (such as Fololens) and design software (such as Rhino 3D) produce a cyber-human-material system that combines the tactile experience and physical feedback of human material experience with computational mathematical calculation. Previously I highlighted the capacity for mixed reality systems to embed knowledge from extensive craft practice experience into the interactive system resulting in a break in the relationship between skill and complexity of material manipulation. On the one hand, this potentially increases the quality of everyday objects, but on the other, it reduces the cultural value placed on those whose knowledge is bound within their mental and physical memory.

If a future scenario occurs where complex structures are achievable without any practice or experience two trajectories seem very likely when set in a historical context. It is not hard to make a connection between the ability of the Hololens to the impact of manufacturing machines in the industrial revolution, both make material objects easier to produce. While I’m not saying mixed reality will have the same scale impact of industrial production, it is worth considering the effect of a system of architectural production that is driven by a desire to absorb expertise and externalise information via virtual projections.

Virtual Luddites

The Arts and Crafts movement, related to the machine sabotaging Luddites, viewed mechanical production as a threat to the artist’s freedom, their creative produce and their livelihood. While with hindsight it is easy to argue that art survived and found new mediums and subject matters through which to question the world, it is true the machine eroded the role of the artist in the production of cultural objects. The most significant loss from machinic repetitive production and specialisation was the shift in cultural importance on the learning of a skill. It is an unknown how cultural value would shift with increased use of mixed reality. The rise of the internet and improved access to digital fabrication was thought to sound the death knell for craft skills, but paradoxically they have become popular counter practices to the overtly robotic processes of making. However, there is a potential shift where most people can work with materials without really knowing them, or emotionally engaging with them over a long period. If there is no need to learn the behaviour of a substance through extensive creative practice, then a source of stimulation and expression is lost from human existence.

Exploitation of the machine

The other trajectory involves the use of humans akin to automated assets. When the industrial revolution introduced efficiencies in making and material use, it also brought a cultural shift in human management. The initial Taylorist project of economic management of human energy, hoped to liberate workers from the machine through greater leisure time, ultimately tied them back to the machines through new types of employment structures and exploitative practices. If a headset allows multiple unskilled people to make high-quality material construction, it is not hard to see the wages reduce in tandem with the skills required to participate. The intelligence is bound up within the digital system meaning that those who own, setup and manage the system exist in a central position of power, those who don a mixed reality headset potentially become a directable organic agent, one of many indistinguishable faces masked by the tinted headset screen. The outcome could be a mechanical Turk like system for construction, please never advocate for an “uber” for architecture.

In a familiar Marxist scenario, those with the knowledge and means of production (Hololens technology) hold a position of economic power and capacity to absorb capital from material (the construction) and immaterial (the data) assets. The above may seem far-fetched, but it is critical to think about how emerging technology is employed in exploitative as well as liberating endeavours. The question to ask in developments with mixed reality is whether there is an imbalance in benefit between the human subject and material object. A more balanced scenario could be the use of technology to develop craft abilities or uses that engage the body with making but allows and encourages mistakes to benefit the mastery of the human subject rather than the material object. Not everyone has the ability and time to be a craftsperson, but the experience gained is a highly subjective experience and remains with the body for life. For a culture that no longer values craft it will once again become the domain of the wealthy and privileged.

It is essential to cast a critical eye on technological development and understand how systems that benefit architecture can have a negative impact beyond the experience of the material object, however for the meantime I will be experimenting with Fologram some more, I just now need to beg, steal or borrow a $7000 Hololens.

Material / Immaterial Architect