The Cult of the Not Yet
Digital technology bears a great burden. Not only is it required to meet our growing expectation of ever more sophisticated and enabling inventiveness, but it is also required to bear responsibility for major social and cultural transformations. For media commentators such as Marshall McLuhan and his followers, instant and incessant communications are returning society to a tribal state of idealised, happy and democratic union.1 We are becoming citizens of a global village. It seems that such claims to transformation have accompanied other major and identifiable technologies. Media theorist James Cary notes that the same transformative role was attributed to steam power, railways, electricity, and atomic power,2 and we see similar promise accompanying space travel, robotics, genetic engineering, and reproduction technologies. At their more modest, such claims focus on the promise of efficiencies in production, an enhanced ability to solve difficult problems, increase profits, and explore new business opportunities. More extravagantly, the increased connectivity and greater access at affordable cost empowers individuals, and augers a more egalitarian and democratic society. (Here we could be talking of the railways, the motor car, the telephone or the Internet.) For extreme enthusiasts digital technology is the culmination of an inexorable progression. Not only does it usher in a new phase in social improvement, but of biological evolution, that somehow implicates machines. We are on the way to having our thoughts and bodies transferred to machines and participating in a networked digital transfiguration, a Star Treck inspired global mind meld.3
How does a technology acquire responsibility for such extravagant possibilities? I would like to conjecture three conditions that prime a technology for inflated expectation and overstated capabilities. First, the technology needs to be named. The technological world is complex and diffused, implicating institutions, social systems, history and myriad interacting technological systems. There needs to be a way of condensing this reality of the complex of relations to an identifiable entity. In the manner of metonymy, there has to be some part of the fabric of our complex world that can be named to stand in for the larger picture. Why or how this is the case is as much a question of the nature of language as it is of the nature of specific technologies. "Digital technology" is one rubric that has been identified. "The computer," "information technology," "digital media," "new media," "digital communications" have also served this role, and in the domain of architecture: "computer-aided design (CAD)" and "virtual architecture." Lately the Internet, the Web and mobile technologies have taken over a metonymic role in accounting for the large and ill-defined complex of systems waiting to be named.
Second, what is named has to fit within a technical agenda, which is simply to say that its development can be identified in terms of measurable trajectories: such as bigger, smaller, faster, closer, further. The railways readily submitted to the quanta of journey time, speed, numbers of connections, and miles of track. The digital realm measures itself in terms of processing speed, storage capacity, bandwidth, number of network connections, each of which can appear as curves on a graph showing increase. Such vectors sustain the narrative of progress and are capable of translation by analogy to society as a whole. Through metaphor, quantity is readily equated with quality.4 More is readily equated with better. Society is capable of improvement analogously to the way that more nodes increase network connectivity, and finer printed circuits increase processor speeds. Society can be reconfigured analogously to the reconfiguration of components on a circuit board, or elements in a CAD database.
Third, the technology is a candidate for presenting as totalising. Measurable trajectories fit readily into narratives of restoration. Each technological improvement takes us closer to a complete whole, where every city is connected by lightning-fast railways, safe travel is open to everyone, you can go anywhere at any time. Digital technology presents the spectre of instant communications, totally ubiquitous digital devices in communication with each other, including computers woven into the fabric of our clothing, or even implanted in our bodies. The technology is potentially restorative of our fractured world, uniting us with one another, and unifying humans and machines. Similarly, the eighteenth century technology pundit may have claimed that steam is purest white, suffuses through our world, is clean and gives life to the dried out fabric of our weary existence. Subsequently, electricity dealt in the positive and negative and united them in a productive life giving charge. Now, digital technology is a play of zeros and ones.5 They ultimately unite in restoring a long lost primordial communion. If the technology lends itself to such narratives of restoration and unity, then it seems it is a ready candidate for assuming inflated responsibility for social transformation.
Considering these three conditions linguistically, the technology functions in terms of metonymy, metaphor and analogy to claim the capability of bringing about social restoration, transformation and reconfiguration. Alternatively, in terms of Heideggers philosophy of technology, we have become technological beings, infatuated with control, instrumental causality, and are slaves to the necessity to explain everything in the same, reductive terms. Technology becomes a cause. We have adopted a totalising world picture, a technological conceit that is at once limiting and inevitable.6
Irrespective of how it gains its power of explanation, a technology inevitably fails to meet its promise, if for no other reason than that it simply reaches its technical limits. As the asymptotes of the graphs come into view the law of diminishing returns dictates that it is too expensive to take the technology further. Or perhaps the technology becomes integrated inconspicuously into social practices, as have the motor car, the telephone and automatic teller machines. The name (computer, digital media, digital communications, CAD, virtual architecture) can become lost as the complex interdependencies of the social and technological systems becomes apparent. Society can become inured to extravagant claims made of the technology. There may also be concerted resistance to the technology. In the obvious case we are persuaded that the technology may be socially deleterious, as with nuclear power, defence technologies, and genetic modification. Or a nostalgia for simpler technologies may come into play.
Contrary to their promise, evidence of the inadequacies of digital technology abound. The social transformations do not seem to take place. The putative positive change of increased communications impose new burdens on labour. New forms of drudgery and exploitation emerge. Charges have been levelled at the exploitation of labour in digitised telephone call centres and the isolation of networked home working.7 Digital technology is capable of displacing people from interesting, fulfilling work and turning them into information workers, continuing the dehumanising aspects of industrialisation.8 At the level of our micro-practices with computers we are familiar with failing software, bugs, crashes, computer viruses, and the costs and demands imposed by inexorable updates to software, hardware and operating systems. The technology is anything but invisible as one wrestles with new instructions, supposedly intelligent on-line manuals, esoteric commands and obtuse icons. Like it or not, you have to be a computer hobbyist to keep up. For a while there was a joke article circulating around the Internet that working with the software of one particular well-known company was analogous to having to be an amateur car mechanic in order to drive a car.
Digital technology is characterised by the "not yet," a term developed at length (with no reference to the digital world) by Ernst Bloch in his treatise on utopia and the future, The Principle of Hope.9 Is software reliable? Is the world a better place due to digital communications? Does CAD make architectural practice more efficient? Are virtual walkthroughs of buildings realistic? Is digital architecture inhabitable, immersive and compelling? Well, not yet, but it will be. The concept of the future assumes an important role in the face of the increasing inadequacies of digital technology to the promises made of it. The future serves as a repository for the unfulfilled ambitions of digital technology. For Bloch and the phenomenological tradition, the "not yet" is a suitable name, a place holder, for the condition of being unsettled in the face of hopes and desires. Our primordial condition is of care and expectation, the concept of the future follows, as a particular form of explanation of our involvement in the world of technology.
The future is the way the "not yet" is revealed when we wish to exert our interest in control, in the face of the unrealised promises of technology. "Future" names the part of the time vector extending from the present, and which is contiguous with the past. It lends geometrical legitimacy to the play of extrapolation, prediction, goal setting, and method. Time constitutes the axis on the graph showing progression to bigger, smaller, faster, further, closer. Unrealised expectations gain expression as "misfit variables,"10 and constitute goals to be achieved. The RIBA series on Future Studies is perhaps motivated by a desire to control the destiny of architecture, a rightful duty of a professional organisation. If we can predict how digital technology is shaping up then we can control how we position ourselves in relationship to it, instrumentally and rationally.11
But there is another tradition in play that frustrates this ambition. This is the romantic legacy of utopian speculation, to which the architectural tradition is also a party. This is the inspirational and sometimes anti-rationalist dreaming of the first person vision: "I see the future, and it is digital." As remarked by architectural historians,12 architecture provided a rich medium for the expression and exploration of utopia (as made overt in Futurism and Expressionism), a role now largely taken over by the media of science fiction, film, computer games, and speculations about digital technology. The future is here the non-place of the ideal, the restored whole, problematised in the best fiction as a struggle with a dystopian obverse, or at worst sentimentalised as a new-age melding of mind, body, soul, nature and artifice. One problem for a professionally-oriented Future Studies dialogue is disentangling the utopian from the instrumentally predictive. Speculative and utopian narratives may inspire, but do they show us how to prepare for new forms of architectural practice?
But the dialogues that cluster around the poles of instrumental and romantic speculation have already run their course in the social sciences and humanistic studies: such as sociology, politics and literary study, though the imperatives of digital technology seem to have cleared a space for their revival. Architects speculating about electronic futures seem to be given license to fall back on outdated forms of argument: appealing either to case studies of how they set and solved technical problems (a kind of instrumental pursuit), or time worn excesses of utopian speculation (a neo-romanticism).
Even the Marxist and neo-Marxist legacies of critical architectural theory seem to be sidelined in much of the discourse on digital architecture. Marx provides a dour line of critique which does not capture the imagination in the same way as giddy speculation about reconfigured digital futures. The kill-joy Marxist legacy came out against the concepts of utopia, as an ideological pursuit. Marx long ago identified the problem of the replacement of labour by machines. With more colour, Baudrillard and others present on the concealing and masking effects of technology. Capitalism distracts and masks the current unsatisfactory condition by directing labour to pin the fulfilment of unrealistic and unrealised expectations on a utopian future. Labour can be inured to its toil by promise of something better.
But narratives of the "not yet" can do other than describe what may be. In the manner of good science fiction, a computer game or a work of surreal art, they can provoke through our capacity to let the absurd do its work. The supposed, and nonsensical, human/machine hybrid known as the cyborg, which apparently we are all becoming, can serve as a shock to those who believe in the goal of integrated and whole personalities in tune with some natural order. The cyborg serves as a surreal object thrown into the context of our discourses on digital technology. The claim is that whether or not we have prosthetic implants we are perhaps provoked to re-think who and what we are.13 The prospect of virtual architecture, an ambiguous, distributed form of space making that is as much process as product, perhaps provokes us into thinking anew what architecture is, and what it is to practice as an architect. Whether or not we now try to design virtual buildings, the concept of architecture without bricks and concrete, may already be informing what we do. In this and other respects, the computer (and its metonymic variants: the Internet, the WAP phone, the virtual construction) serves as a surreal object thrown into the fabric of our expectations. It distorts and unsettles the fragile warp and weft of professional certitudes.
Whether such speculative provocations are productive is a pragmatic question. The value of a narrative, like the meaning of a word, is in its use, and use is subject to ever changing context. It is perhaps the task of Future Studies to find suitable names for entities that might challenge and provoke in ways that illuminate the changing contexts of architectural practice. This task is already far removed from the blind assumption that digital technology is the prime mover of radical transformation, and rhetorical ploys aimed to cause us to gasp in breathless wonder at what may yet be achieved, while ignoring the failed promises of the moment.
1 McLuhan, Marshall. 1962. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
2 Cary, James. 1989. Communication as Culture: Essays in Media and Society. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
3 Coyne, Richard. 1999. Technoromanticism: Digital Narrative, Holism and the Romance of the Real. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
4 Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By, Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
5 Plant, Sadie. 1998. Zeros and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture. London: Fourth Estate.
6 Heidegger, Martin. 1977. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. W. Lovitt. New York: Harper and Row.
7 Scott, Graham and Scott, Robert. 2000. Ethics and the human aspects of technological change: call centres, a case study, in the International Journal of Design Sciences and Technology, 8:1, 25-35.
8 Rifkin, Jeremy. 2000. The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Work-Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era, London, Penguin.
9 Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope. Trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
10 Alexander, Christopher. 1964. Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard university Press.
11 Coyne, Richard D. 1995. Designing Information Technology in the Postmodern Age: From Method to Metaphor, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
12 Whyte, Iain Boyd. 1993. The expressionist sublime. In Expressionist Utopias: Paradise, Metropolis, Architectural Fantasy, ed. Timothy O. Benson, 118-137. Los Angeles, Calif: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
13 Hayles, Katherine N. 1999. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.