Diary of Knowledge

interdisciplinary surgery by axe and blowtorch rather than scalpel and needle; reading, analysing, summarising and writing; trying to transform information to knowledge

Tag: U.S

on politics, contingency and technology

.1) U.S and Europe seems to have some common trends in how they view each other and politics during the ongoing recession. In Europe a majority of the (interviewed) citizens were discontent with the last years of national financial politics. The only countries where people generally trusted how their politicians have handled the Euro crisis were Sweden and Germany. In Sweden 74% were favourable towards the reigning financial politics. Yet, according to the latest polls, Moderaterna are down by 4 percentage points since last year. So are we voting by the wallet or not? Or do we think to be able to get it even better with a Social Democratic government? Or, maybe the most probable conclusion, we shouldn’t care too much about mid-term political polls…

.2) I just started reading “Architecture Depends” by Jeremy Till. Ever since reading this (which is basically the second chapter of the book) I’ve been really interested in his writings. Here I will only comment on one small paragraph of what I’ve read so far.

On p.20 Till describes what still is one of the “criteria” for great architecture, namely autonomy. Great architecture is more than the life that surrounds it, it is untouchable by the taint of everyday life. What this is effectually doing is widening the gap between architects and non-architects. It’s a false division, in place to maintain power structures. Architecture is pure, people contaminate it, and great architecture defies this contamination. If we follow this line of reason, then great architecture is by definition inhuman.

Till is further arguing for this point by pointing out the (symbolical) relation between philosophy and architecture. Philosophy, trying to create the true/untouchable in the immaterial domain; architecture, trying to create the true/untouchable in the material. Till provides with ample examples of this relation.

Another example comes to mind. In “In Defense of Lost Causes” Slavoj Zizek argues that any ethics focusing on humanity itself by definition becomes subjective and thereby relative. The only set of ethics able to become eternal would thus be an inhuman ethics, ethics projected onto something else than humanity. Exactly where Zizek is trying to take this is somewhat unclear. We will have to wait and see. It is however basically the same argument as Till makes, just from the other side.

.3) Robert J Gordon argues that the time of economic growth might be over, that it was just a brief 250 year long period in human history. His argument is that growth is the byproduct of technological advancements, and that most productivity increasing inventions already have been invented. As written on “The Economist”, this might be a simplistic read of the latest decade if inventions. Some objections to Gordons argument:

1) The latest set of IT inventions are not per say productivity increasing, meaning that the benefit from them can not (yet) be counted in GDP per capita increase/year. IT is mainly about efficiency and streamlining, meaning chopping of the parts of production you don’t need rather than expanding production.

2) Cloudcomputing, crowdsourcing, digital layering of reality, 3D-printing and so on and so forth are still fairly new inventions. It might still take at least some more time before we can see their full potential.

3) Some (i.e. Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee) follow Gordon’s argument to some degree, but claiming us to just have reached a new threshold; “autonomous vehicles, effective machine translation and voice recognition, and artificial intelligence are or soon will be deployable realities”.

.4) Google has now designed an online tool for you to create your own online courses.

CONCLUSIONS AND CROSS-FERTILISATION

Slavoj Zizek makes another point in “In Defense for Lost Causes”; we make a difference between what is natural (and thereby non-changeable) and what we can actually effect. For this, we don’t want the representational democracy to actually be a direct consequence of our (common) will, but rather something else. There is a need for discrepancy, for the unknown, for things to be non-fixed and even contingent. By not really being able to effect the outcome (except by ONE vote) we have to perceive it as decided, as “natural”. This is what gives representational democracy its legitimate power. Okay, Zizek is sort of a nut-head. But there is some sort of truth to it, the insecurity before each election, the polls and wagers. This could help to explain the strange relationship Swedes seem to have with our government. We applaud the financial politics during the Euro crisis, but we don’t want to feel responsible for it; we want someone to decide for us, we still want the enlightened despot.

We could add the Jeremy Till paragraph to this. We (as people in general) have an inclination towards the natural/eternal/true, but this perception is to 100% produced by ourselves. We are, basically, fooling ourselves; we want to lift “whatever” out of its dirty and normal context, creating something larger and holier to which we can belong. No matter how you look at it, it is a lie. Question, is it good to lie to ourselves? And can we still create, maintain and love the lie as soon as we know it is a lie?

A quick answer, once again following the reasoning of Zizek. In the end of his rant on Ecology Zizek states that “Love means that you accept a person with all its failures, stupidities, ugly points and nonetheless the person is absolute for you”. Following this train of thought, the only conclusion can be to search for “truth” and to embrace it (contingent as it is). It could here also be noted that lying to yourself might make you happier, but then there is of course the difference between happy and being right.

And to finally comment on the dystopian conclusions drawn by Robert J Gordon. Personally I’m not too interested in “growth”, and it might be true that the last decade of inventions are not as key as previous when it comes to accumulating resources (e.g. comparing the iPad with industrial farming). But IT has the potential of being equally revolutionary. Google’s “make your own online course” is just an example of it. Though probably seen as entertaining/commercial, the very idea of online education actually questions the whole school system; who is teaching whom what? Technology, created by capitalist giant Google, that could actually promote anarchistic ideas of education, where everyone is both teacher and student, on a global scale. I argue this potential to be equally revolutionary to the consequences of industrialised agriculture.

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reanimation III: on bureaucracy, price-gauging, war and elastic cities

.1) James Kirkup argues that part of David Camerons recent problems are due to the inefficient political infrastructure he has set up (or is the critique of the infrastructure just a hidden way to criticise the PM himself?). Slowly many of the important positions in the HQ have been replaced by civic servants, more gray bureaucrats than (conservative) policy advisors.

Maybe there is a need to, conceptually, divide the political structure. Gray bureaucrats are just as important as policy advisors, but they have different key roles to fill. The first is an integral part of any consistent policy execution, the latter the ”think-tank” for creation of the guidelines.
Aseem Inam’s book ”Planning for the Unplanned: Recovering from Crises in Megacities” focuses on the importance of functioning (bureaucratic) routines, which would put emphazise on the need for rigid delegating/distributing political systems. The ”apolitical” civil servants might be good for the system as a whole, but bad for Cameron’s government. Is the conundrum mentioned by Kirkup the effect of a mix-up of the two aforementioned categories, or just political secrecy and back-stabbing.

.2) Tim Harford discusses the benefits of more dynamic pricing. Basically it means that prices would be more directly connected to supply/demand, when demand is high and supply is low prices would sky-rocket (and the opposite). While cheap discounts of over-supplied goods are often welcomed, the opposite is seen as unethical. Harford argues that prices increasing with high demand/low supply would increase efficiency.

Personally I have a couple of points of critiques, none of them really dealing with the question at hand (as a concept I have no problem with dynamic pricing/price-gauging) but rather with the concept of the market itself.

Harford argues that with flat-prices (and lottery/queue systems during shortages) ”the goods may not reach the people who want them most”. But capitalism does care about who wants something the most only who has the ability to pay (but this is a minor slip I’d say).

There is a problem in where to draw a line for ”basic rights/necessities” and ”luxury goods”. Dynamic pricing of concert tickets is reasonable, but what about health care? Dynamic pricing further needs ”free (or even perfect) markets” to be justifiable. Now, is there even such a thing as a (practically functioning) perfect market? Are not inherited power structures too big an influence/regulator not to be considered?
And with acceptance of price-gauging, one of the easiest way to increase revenue would be to decrease supply, hastening companies spiral towards monopoly/oligopoly/cartel structures.

.3) American violations continue in Afghanistan. The (media) backlash might however have increased American willingness to negotiate and hand over more power to the Afghan (puppet?) government.

The effects might be mostly symbolical, but that doesn’t mean they are any less important. Increasing Afghan command over matter of national security will, hopefully, create less friction with the Afghan people. With less power to the US forces local rebellions/warlords might have a harder time rallying troops against a foreign invasion.
And, hopefully, Afghan forces will be less likely to burn the Koran or massacre villages.

.4) Imagining an elastic city – Diana Limbach Lempel. Informal and flexible structures should be given more space/opportunity in cities. The idea is basically taken from the chaos of (Asian) mega-cities such as Mumbai. What could ”stable” cities in the West learn from this?

There is a fragrance of something quite disgusting in this rhetoric. Entropy and community is, in many places, strictly because of necessity. Stick together or starve. Take space or see it be taken from you. To apply this on (somewhat more fluently) functioning societies is mockery and romanticism. You can not talk about the entropic systems of Mumbai without talking about the poverty, injustice and problems as well.
There is another problem in this (green-movement romanticised) elastic city. There is a narrative of a city functioning as a dynamic organism, growing and shrinking; transforming. But buildings don’t want to move. A heavily shrinking city will mean that work, effort and resources used for construction will be spoiled. There is no escaping this.
Actually, every city to have existed is/was organic by definition (the inhabitants functioning as the mitochondria of a cell). But this makes the metaphor shallow; it needs to be better redefined.

However, this is where the elasticity becomes interesting; not as a substitute to traditional planning, but as the web knitting it together and filling in the gaps. I reject all symbolic connections to ”green organic cities” and their narratives. What is truly great about elasticity is the possibility to directly change and re-create your immediate surrounding and what affects your life.
Informal, bottom-up planning, as well as temporary flexible structures, has the potential to circumvent big scale economical failure. The informal working as a test-site for what should be sedimented and what should not.

(originally written 120415)

reanimation I: on PSTD and architecture

Re-animating this blog with some old, unpublished, entries.
                                                                                                                                                     

.1) For every one US soldier killed in war, another 25 veterans commit suicide (e.g. due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

(All) armed forces of today are built on structural deception (on the level of society). The image and message communicated to those enlisting is not reflecting reality. Army culture is based on not showing any weakness/emotion/affection. It is a culture of masculine normative repression. This is truly a misconception, ”weakness” can not be eradicated just by claiming it ”not to exist”.
This structural deception (false initial information and repressive internal systems) is an exploitation of a few in the name of the nation. This system might be an effective way for a nation to create ample tools (read: soldiers) for securing its own interests, but it is a concept that cannot co-exist with the notion of democracy.

.2) Architect and art historian hates on new mirror-glass facade in central Uppsala. His arguments are highly modernistic.

The new facade is in itself not worse than any other facade. To refute it on the basis of architectural style is futile. Architecture has never been a critical discipline, it has just pretended to be so.

A question of more importance is what we think of the investment itself and how it relates to the city of Uppsala. Is it important to further emphasize the consumerist/shopaholic tendencies of our society?

CONCLUSIONS AND CROSS-FERTILISATION

Is there such a thing as an architectural Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? An overly simplistic interpretation would be the so-called ”failure of modernism”. As projects grew ever larger they became more engineering than architecture. Machine-houses only fitting for machine-people. This is a simplified narrative common in Swedish architectural circuits.

Let us instead go one step deeper; the root of evil is not the evil itself but the goodness behind it. Architecture was trying to establish itself as a critical discipline, re-evaluating how we lived and how we built. The goal was noble; housing, comfort, improved life quality for everyone.
Modernism turned from a criticism of Architecture, to the hegemony within Architecture; Modernism ruled supreme. From here on, Modernism decided ”the question” to be answered rather than searching for new answers.
The question is; if it is the system that is wrong, can change for the better truly come from within the system?

(originally written 120416)