Ever since Clay Shirky (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LabqeJEOQyI) proclaimed that there is no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure, the role of filters in the network knowledge economy has taken center stage. With over 3 billion searches per day, Google’s search engine is probably the most used filter in the world. Google’s PageRank algorithm – and 250 other criteria that are much less publicized – seem to work so well for filtering that knowledge out of the ocean of information in the web that is relevant and reliable for our questions and concerns that we have come to believe that Google is presenting us a complete and unbiased view of the world. We tend to forget that there is indeed a problem of filter failure and that perhaps no filter, not even the algorithm searching for Google, can be a mirror of the world.
Architecture is becoming more reflective. Not because architects are theorizing more about what they do – they have always done this –, but because the conditions of the possibility of architecture are themselves becoming an object of architectural design. Stan Allen’s post-semiotic architecture of infrastructures is an example. According to Allen (Infrastructural Ubanism), “Under the dominance of the representational model, architecture has surrendered its capacity to imagine, to propose, or to construct alternative realities.” (50) This implies a new program for architecture in which design does not exhaust itself in autonomous, representative buildings, but is concerned primarily with “the production of directed fields in which program, event, and activity can play themselves out.” (52) Concretely, Allen is talking about infrastructures, that is, not specific buildings, but “the site itself…the conditions for future events…the construction of surfaces, the provision of services to support future programs, …the establishment of networks for movement, communication, and exchange.” (54) All these things such as transportation systems, energy grids, communication networks, and so on can be seen as the conditions of the possibility for architecture in the sense of objects and buildings. For readers of Castells’ Information Society this sounds a lot like what Castells calls the “space of flows,” that is, the hardware and software that creates a global network of simultaneous action beyond any local places, traditions, cultures, and identities. Although Castells has not entirely given up the conflict and even contradiction between the global and somewhat virtual space of flows on the one side and the physical and fragmented space of places, he has come to recognize the role of architecture in “making places in the space of flows” (Space of Flows, Space of Places: Materials for a Theory of Urbanism in the Information Age, in The Cybercities Reader ed. S. Graham, 2004). Castells cites such projects as Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Calatrava’s bridges, telecommunication towers, airports, Moneo’s AVE station in Madrid, and Koolhaas’s Lille Grand Palais. Many other multipurpose megastructures in the form of transportation or communication hubs could be added to the list. In these structures what is designed is infrastructure, the network of the network society. It is not place but flow that is the “object” of architectural design. It is the flow that becomes the place we live, work, play, shop, etc. Contrary to Castells opposition between flow and place, what these examples show is that it is the space of flows that is becoming the place in which we live, work, and construct our identities.
In the wake of the digital revolution networking breaks out of traditional spatial and temporal limitations on access to information and cooperative action such that new and unforeseen possibilities emerge. Communication and action have traditionally been conditioned by spatial, temporal, and physical or bodily parameters. What could be perceived, known, and communicated and the conditions of action were determined largely by the physical “context,” the place and time where an actor was bodily present. Someone standing on a street corner in Lower Manhattan experiences a different world, has access to different information, and has different possibilities of action, then someone herding goats in the Pyrenees. The information available to these persons and the opportunities of action open to them is of course also determined by their education, the location of the nearest library, the available means of transportation, and the time, effort, and cost required to contact someone in order to get an answer to a question, initiate a financial transaction, coordinate cooperative action and so on. In the network society these spatial, temporal, and physical conditions are no longer the primary parameters of knowing and acting. Instead reality presents itself as a play of layers and filters.
The impact of digital information and communication systems upon all aspects of life has raised the question of the relation of the physical world to so-called “virtual reality.” Already such visionary thinkers as Norbert Wiener and J. C. L. Licklider had prophesized a human-computer symbiosis on the basis of automated information systems. Jean Baudrillard’s “hyperreality” described a situation in which the distinction between the physical and virtual realities no longer made any sense. New media studies have pointed out that business, politics, education, health care etc. are becoming increasingly determined by processes, activities, and communication that occur via digital media, digital information processing, and intelligent automated information systems. Indeed, new media studies have shown that a process of “transcoding” (Manovich) is reconfiguring the social along the lines of digital media, which amounts to admitting that new media are not media at all in the traditional sense, but general conditions of communicative action as such. Information is not a message, but condition of being, an ontological category. Much as Kantian categories new media are becoming the conditions of the possibility of constructing viable networks. If new media become general conditions of constructing social order, this has consequences for ontology and the understanding of the real.