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Cyberspace and the Architecture of Power.

Cyberspace and the Architecture of Power.
John Pickering, Psychology Department, Warwick University.

"The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition."

This is Walter Benjamin, writing in 1936 on the effects that mechanical reproduction would have on the icons of culture and on the material basis of aesthetics. Even if there has not been the revolution that he predicted, what he sensed about technology was correct. It has helped to create an arena of revolutionary change, the almost real world of electronic communication and entertainment, the icon of contemporary culture known as cyberspace. What Benjamin forsaw was the significance of the simulacrum, the multiple and mobile virtual thing which stands for a fixed and singular reality. While OEvirtualà formerly meant OEalmostÃ, its recent usage, as in OEvirtual realityÃ, now stands for OEreal-seemingÃ, the world of cyberspace.

Almost sixty years after Benjamin's prophetic intimation of virtual reality, the technology of simulacra is reshaping our cultural arena. It is becoming possible to act in virtual space as if the meanings of reality had been imported into it. Mobile virtual meaning is central to what Lyotard has called the libidinal economy of post industrial culture, where fluid sign value has come to dominate the more solidified values of use and exchange. Not only reproduction but also production itself are becoming virtual. The icons of culture are now forming, reforming and miscegenating in a domain of electronic magic. The wizards of this domain have conjured up a menagerie of androgynous cyborgs with human voices which stride, roll and flap through spaceports, streetfights and medieval castles (Illustration 1)

These chimeric inhabitants and simulated vistas may make cyberspace seem appear little more than an arena for games. However, what is being played out there is more significant than that. The hybridisation of myth and technology reflects something central to postmodern culture as it winds into the future, turning on itself in a cross-linked helix of quotation and ironic juxtaposition. As in game playing so in cultural appreciation, self-conscious eclecticism is the rule. Hyperspace games are assembled both from real events, like the Gulf war and from cultural cliches like the gunfight. In somewhat the same way, the built environment is seen as composed from this embellishment, those proportions, that vista. In games or architectural appreciation, quotation and double-coding is ubiquitous, the common currency of stylistic pluralism and self-awareness.

The sensitive tip of the helix is in cyberspace and the media, whence there gushes a flood of information about the flood of information that electronic technology has unleashed. Cyberspace is presented not only as a place but also as a movement, not only a frontier but also a populist surge showing where culture is going. As satellite dishes sprout from roof tops and the cable burrows into suburban front rooms, the coming electronic wonderland is celebrated and media cliches about the sudden transformations that the Internet will bring are already worn smooth.

Things move fast in cyberspace and as academics ponder over its significance, it appears that the academy itself is about to be engulfed. A recent THES suggested that the Internet would bring about a trans-Gutenberg evolution in academic publishing "overnight". The same issue carried pictures of children amid arrays of screens, pressing glowing yellow buttons and grasping joysticks. The screens were windows into spaces where things could be done like shopping or exploring. No keyboards and very few words were in view, indeed, the children did not look old enough to read. Close to these pictures were details of WebSpace, an Internet browsing tool which, working beyond the linearity of texts or the two-dimentionality of images, allows cyberspace travelers to "... rotate, walk through and spin renderings of architecture ..."

Cyberspace has architectural interest to the extent that it displays the meanings of real space. It is increasingly able to do this. Science fiction used to be about aliens and intergalactic travel. Now it's about exploration of the cultural space in which human beings will renegotiate their identity with technological life forms. It is rich with apocalyptic visions of a culture dominated by electronic intelligence. These visions are images of a space, the 'space behind the screen' as it was called by William Gibson, among the first cyberspace writers. There is the highway, there are sites, you can get access to places like multiple user domains in which it is possible to move and act. Here you can explore a world of rooms, spaces, doors and passages in which you can meet others, some human some not, who you know and who know you as an individual.

As part of writing this article, I investigated one of these domains called Lambdamoo and inquired about whether there was a map. I was told that there was one, in a room within the domain, but I have yet to find it. The only way to interact with this domain available to me is by typing words and receiving words in return. Therefore the spatial feel to the domain is quite limited. Even so, when talking about domains like Lambdamoo, it seems reasonable to use space-like language. If, with more powerful equipment, it is possible to use things like images, sounds, analogue controls and tactile feedback, then users who have these more naturalistic ways to inhabit the domain may actually think about it in terms of real space.

This is why cyberspace has architectural interest. Domains and the structures in them express meanings in their design, their situation and in the way they are used. A library is not merely a sign that books are to be found there but is also a symbol of value and empowerment. The structures of cyberspace hold information in new and powerful ways and by doing so they signify a new sort of empowerment to do with control and access to knowledge. What people encounter as they use cyberspace is not just the information that flickers across screens. Cyberspace is an icon for something much more than its use value. The icon itself is a potent sign of the powers of cyberspace. Images on screens have a multiple life. They display themselves, being picture like, but if acted on, by being touched or selected in some way, they transform into another screen of information or connect the user to some new domain or service.

This playful simulation is an aspect of what Baudrillard has called the 'extasy of communication'. In electronic technocracy information and simulation is mobile and flexible than it has ever been. This mobility of meaning and value reflects the transition from an economy based on exchange value to one based on sign value, the state of post industrial culture. With this transition has come the empowerment of the cognitariat. As architecture expresses the values of those with the power to say how the environment shall be shaped, it will reflect this transition as it encounters cyberspace. When the economic base of technocracy was primarily material goods, structures were designed that were permanent and powerful enough to produce, house and to symbolise them. Architects of the industrial age conducted a charge of meanings to do with bulk, weight and permanence. This became the solid masonry of nineteenth century cities, factories, warehouses and civic buildings needed to be close to each other since their business depended on the material exchange between them. Together, these structures not only did the business but also broadcast messages of substance, gravitas and worth. (Illustration 2)

As the basis of technocracy has shifted towards information services, so the messages broadcast have shifted to mirror this. Post-industrial architects are conductors for a lighter but more mobile charge, concerning speed, fluidity and transformation. The material structures that appear because of this charge trace the self-assembling spiral of culture, whose sensitive tip is now to be found in cyberspace. The communications industry exemplifies this shift very well. The large buildings that used to house the infrastructure of the telephone network now stand virtually empty. The human operators and the electromechanical equipment that replaced them both required vastly greater space than the computer based systems that now do the job. (Illustration 3) Centralised urban locations are no longer a prerequisite for information based industries. MacCormac, Jamieson & Pritchard's Cable and Wireless college ripples gently in a greenfield site. Part of the messages broadcast by its lightness and fluidity is that telecommunication is the motor of the post industrial economy. (Illustration 4)

A building is a real workplace and while cyberspace is partly a virtual playground, it is also part of the nervous system of postmodern culture. The media cliche that cyberspace is a real space, somewhere that people could visit, like a building or a country, can be treated seriously to some extent. There is a space, of sorts, with unique properties and potentials. Structures are being created in it that people can use and explore. It is, in a practical way, architecturally rich because radically new actions and structures are possible. The meanings here are about mobility, access and power. The rhetoric of cyberspace is about empowerment. You can surf the Internet, boldly go where you will and be what you want to be, do exciting transformative things and connect to the whole world. Everyone will get to play there and will participate in global cyber-democracy.

The reality, of course, is nothing like this. The cyberspace gypsy, hitching the information superhighway with the wind in her hair is just as likely to be a computer nerd playing introverted games. What the great majority of people who enter cyberspace will be doing for quite a while yet, is just sitting at terminals, virtually motionless except for their hands, with their eyes focussed on a screen some few inches away. There is no global empowerment here. Most users are young white males in overdeveloped countries who use machines that cost more than lifetime earnings in the third world. As things presently stand, more people are set to be disempowered than are empowered by cyberspace. To present cyberspace as the arena of global democracy is darkly ironic.

The falsity of cyberspace rhetoric is not only known, but is also consciously inflated. If Baudrillard is right that images of desire can become reality more rapidly than ever before, this means that reality can be talked into existence in a new and powerful way. It is because today's media gush is tomorrow's database and next month's product that there is something important going on. Even if most cyberbabble turns out to be mere postmodern whimsey something important will happen in trying to make it reality. Take as a parallel case the overblown rhetoric of artificial intelligence. In the 1970's it was confidently predicted that computers were going to talk, think and have responsibilities and rights. They never did, but from trying to fulfil these inflated dreams enormously important things have come about. Computers do not use natural language, but eighty percent of the translation in the European Commission is done by programs, not people. Computers do not think, but they do assist people who have real problems to solve. They do not have responsibilities and rights, but they do control situations with real consequences and thus cannot be switched off.

Likewise, although the wilder reaches of cyberspace will stay fictional, important things will happen because explorers will try to get there. Virtual space will, eventually, become an arena for real action. The helix will leave behind it a trace of structures that have enough in common with real ones to be of architectural interest. However, despite the rhetoric of "overnight" transformation, this will be a matter of bricollage not breakthrough. No single aspect of information technology is going to open a magic gateway into an already-formed world of cybernetic structures. Instead, accumulating tools and practices will gradually bring cyberspace into being. Some of these are already in place and others are appearing at an increasing rate. Many will fail or prove to be too specialised, but the generally useful ones will become incorporated into the craft and practice of architecture. Tools of enormous power are confidently predicted. The glow below the horizon hints that the empire of information technocracy will be alight with glittering wonders.

In the mundane present, electronic tools and practices are already found in architectural work. For example, there are now design tools which offer the natural feel of paper and pencil, but in electronic form. Tools for layout are even more highly developed, especially in three dimensions. There are tools for investigating the dynamic surround of structures where things like fluid flows, traffic densities and current loads can be displayed and modified. These tools are part of the wider set for assembling the work of many people and displaying it to clients. The media mix elicited by design competitions now contain electronic submissions.

Electronic tools may, initially, merely be new ways to do old things, but they will eventually come to mean more than this. Again, consider artificial intelligence as an analogy. Computer programs were expected to replace human decision makers. They did not , but what did emerge were decision support systems without which contemporary human decision makers would be unable to work at the rate they do. Indirectly, electronic intelligence has become incorporated into human practice and in doing so has changed it fundamentally. Architectural practice will undergo a similar evolution since it has a particular character that fits well with what the tools and practices of cyberspace can offer. These are to do with visualisation, transformation and of spaces, surfaces and volumes. Buildings, environments and arenas for action can be created in virtual space and then entered in order that their their layout and their workings can be investigated.

As an example, consider designing compact turbines. Here wires, ducts and conduits have to be put near one another even though they carry things that cannot be mixed, like electricity, fuel and hot gasses. Too near, and there is danger, too far and the objective of compact design is compromised. This layout problem is addressed by systems that display a working drawing as a virtual space into which designers may enter at whatever scale required, say a few inches or so. Thus shrunk, they may walk around the prototype, much as a tourist would walk round a cathedral. Alterations are carried out by moving things about under perceptual-motor control. Once things are satisfactory, the designer returns to actual size with the design updated.

Systems with this sort of power are going to become increasingly affordable. Electronic translation will render natural sketches into working designs in a variety of forms. If these include virtual structures it will permit walk-through inspection and hands on re-design in real time. Modification and service work are particularly apt for this re-tooling of professional practice if the plans of buildings or environments that are to be modified already exist as data structures. These will be the working medium for surveying, estimating and designing modifications, on site work being reserved for later stages of the contract. New practices may also come from elsewhere. For example, the rapid prototyping techniques now used in production engineering may transfer to architecture quite well if the transfer proves to be fundamentally a matter of rescaling.

Thus, the impact of cyberspace on architecture will be piecemeal and come from different directions. It is not the pronouncements of cultural theorists that will bring cyberspace from virtual into real existence, but the development of affordable working tools and the practices that go with them. These practices will not only have to do with design and build but with how designs are distributed and used. This is where architectural practice may enter cyberspace in a fundamentally different way. Information and communication technology means the rapid transfer and reproduction of any data structure. Architectural work crucially involves representations of space. If these representations, be they plans, drawings, texts or virtual prototypes are created with electronic tools, they will be able to migrate and to be worked on collectively far more extensively and rapidly than at present. Ways of displaying, storing and distributing architectural work, initially there for commercial reasons will then become a more mobile resource, with clear implications for education in architecture, art and design or the history of the built environment.

This process will participate in the generation of cyberspace itself. Many interesting designs are never built. When designs appear in cyberspace, the boundary between the built and the not built is renegotiated. With time, the designs for what was actually built will migrate and mingle with those that were not. Cyberspace that will thus transmit the special cultural impulse that architecture bears in a new and powerful way. It will create places where designers, students, clients or tourists who may do what they please, including browse, look, interact, copy, modify and participate in collective work. What becomes manifest will be the material trace of the present talk about cyberspace.

Of course, it did not require the advent of information technology for there to be space-like talk about things which are not spaces. Space is implicit in how we describe our lives. We speak of 'getting into' a new 'area' when what we actually mean is thinking about a new things or reading books on a new topic. Thus the space-like character of cyberspace can be treated with caution because things that are not inherently spatial will attract spatial metaphors in any case.

However, what is intriguing about the impact of cyberspace on architectural practice is that the matters in hand are genuinely spatial to begin with. Architectural sensitivities may lead to a more realistic use of cyberspace and make it more productive. Architecture is about creating the meanings and values of the built environment and with displaying them to clients. Architectural creativity is deployed in a hierarchy of media from initial sketches through working drawings to the specification of materials and fixings. This is the skilled transformation of a creative impulse into its material expression. The forces that are bringing cyberspace into being could benefit enormously from these skills.

These forces are not, of course, politically neutral. The moghuls of post-industrial capitalism have concentrated their attention on electronic technology for decades now. Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch talk of the Internet as the ultimate production and distribution system. Just as the built environment of the industrial age expressed utility, the production of material goods and accumulation, so cyberspace, the growing tip of post industrial culture, is rich with signs of mobility and of the reproduction and transmission of simulacra. Simulacra are virtual, but not false. Hypertexts are real discourses, even if ink and paper may have disappeared. Databanks have information about real people and datastructures have information about real buildings. The people may be made real enough to talk to and the buildings may be real enough to visit, even if they do not exist in the usual sense. Power lies in access. Just who can and cannot be within the citadels of cyberspace and what they may or may not do there, is a sharp political and legal issue. The expression of power relations is going to be as material in the architectural values of cyberspace as it is in the making of places like the Pentagon or the Kremlin.

Which returns us to Benjamin. Even though the technology of simulacra is still getting up to speed the decoupling from tradition that he discerned is clear enough. Electronic architectural practice will move away from aesthetic traditions of fine art and new sensitivities will develop. Benjamin felt that technology would democratise the material base of aesthetics by liberating the process of production from the control of an elite. However, it presently looks as if electronic means of reproduction will be as tightly controled as were the means of production, for all that there is talk of cyberspace as democratic empowerment. As a means of production, reproduction and distribution in post industrial culture, cyberspace is actually more subject to control than in any previous era. The result is a dark and ironic contrast between the image of cyberspace as the arena of social transformation and the rise of an elite cognitariat from a disempowered mass.

Cyberspace has architectural meaning that is as directly related to power as that of material buildings. Encounters with these meanings will change how we perceive the built environment. This echos what Benjamin felt mechanical reproduction would do to the visual arts. As reproduction modulates the aura of authenticity that surrounds works of art, so our sense of cultural habitation is bound to change with the places and things that are being built in there in cyberspace. Their creation is a matter of architecture as well as programming. Some of the places being built will be very like real places. Virtual reality may even allow us to be in them to a degree that is real enough to be worth paying for. Of course, being there will still be the real thing. Visits to New York, with the noise and the smells, will be vastly preferred to sitting in the living room with your head encased in a TV set. However cyberspace travel to real places will soon be an affordable way of deciding where to go on holiday, or whether the new design for the city library is to our liking. How we then encounter these places will have been changed.

The glittering prize, though, is not the virtual travel brochure, but to create the palaces of the electronic imagination, free from mundane constraints of service duct provision and loadbearing calculations. Of course, cyberspace already offers places to play. These are not palaces but dungeons that specify all too tightly what sort of games can be played in them. Such places recreate what programmers read in comics and, since they didn't read anything else, their architectural sense may mean that they think the Bauhaus was a tree dwelling. Cyberspace will soon be more architecturally interesting. Domains like Lambdamoo are getting to be places where you can explore, learn layouts, meet people and change things. They are starting to have human scale functionality and real vistas. They are places you can find your own games to play. Rather than discovering the Magic Sceptre or doing battle with the Lazer Dragon, cyberspace is becoming a place of architectural interest on the human scale. It is beginning to feel possible to be 'there' and to notice and respond to what it affords. A real space will emerge the more it is created by architects who make places that can be played in the way visitors mean to play, not in the way programmers mean them to play.

Cyberspace games express a powerful play of signification, a cultural movement from the real towards the virtual. Despite the hype, the political and economic significance of cyberspace is growing quickly. The architectural values that will be present in this space have crucially to do with access to and distribution of power, with the rights to communication and with the control of information and meaning. Even though cyberspace is an arena for games and fiction, important structures will remain when the media froth has blown away. There really is a space behind the screen, power is there and not just anyone who can get to play with it.

It is not only the goods and services of the libidinal economy that will circulate in cyberspace. As it participates in the cultural and political process, what will flow through it will be opinion surveys, subversive literature, directives of the United States of Europe, manifestos and votes. It is well to remember that Benjamin's prophetic essay ended with the insight that war marks the failure of society to incorporate technology. He also predicted that in a culture whose perception had been transformed by technology, simulacra would be used to beautify war. This has happened, as Baudrillard pointed out. The real Gulf war was virtually hidden by the most tightly controlled media campaign of modern times. The tragedy was instead presented through video bites that had the dynamics and the aesthetics of a videogame. In the tightening cultural helix, as meaning becomes mobile and autonomous, virtual and real wargames are blending. Cyberspace games and work are both about the control of meaning and the expression of power. This is why the politics of cyberspace are the politics of architecture.

Virtual games are part of a real cultural and political impetus. To the extent that cyberspace comes to have a spatial character, this impetus could be expressed through architectural practice. As it incorporates electronic tools and practices, architecture will produce works that are as a consequence detached from its present aesthetic traditions. What new traditions will appear is still to emerge. Presently the signs are that cyberspace will participate, as Benjamin feared it would, in a celebration of destructive forces set loose when culture cannot contain the effects of technology. If architectural values can be expressed in cyberspace perhaps it will help to make it a more productive and civilised cultural arena.