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The best way to frame this conversation is through this tweet I sent a few months ago.
That prompted a quick reply from someone who has some responsibilities when it comes to making IA a thing.
So I played nice. Who wants to get into a nasty twitter fight with Lou Rosenfeld of all people. But honestly, I'm not that sure.
The reason for this is that there is a new spirit.
A new spirit that works through complexity
It’s the expression of a postdigital society
And works through architectural principles.
Let’s start from complexity.
An example can explain what complexity is not. Ever tried to build a piece of furniture from IKEA following their instructions?
Well, this is not complex. This is complicated.
This is complex. A city. Venice, in this case.
An emergent, layered system that includes people, artifacts, relationships, and the environment through which they connect and interact.
So, again, what is complexity? Tim Gwinn gives us a good example when explaining what complexity means for Robert Rosen. He says complexity works by comparison.
Think of vehicles, and suppose you impose a measure past which they are considered oversize.
This car is within the limits, so it’s ok. It’s easy to see that a bike would also be ok, and they are approximately comparable. The size wouldn’t differ too much.
Now, a truck. This is oversize. Not by much, but it’s definitely part of the second, opposite set we defined by imposing a limit.
But what about the Death Star? It’s still oversized, right? So I can say my truck and this planet-size spaceship are part of the same set. Not helpful, right? While the car and bike express a fairly homogeneous set, at least as far as size goes, this set only works in comparison to the first. It’s a complex set, not easily known.
Gwinn elaborates a definition from here that he traces back to Rosen. A simple system is simulable.
A system that is non-simulable, that is, one that does not allow to predict all final states, is not simple.
Hence, it is complex. And unpredictable. Complexity is simply what belies modeling. Behavior in a simple model (and hence in a simple system) can always be correctly predicted: not so in complex systems.
This is complex. A system that produces and consumes information, and that is increasingly experienced through the mediation of contextual information.
But this is also complex. Linneus’ Tree of Life, a staple of taxonomy and of a way to see information architecture. And it’s the result of a design choice, or multiple design choices. A process. Just like a city. There is nothing necessary here.
Now, multiplicity. We need to go back a little for this.
When this book came out in 1998, Lou and Peter were working in a world that was strikingly different from the world of today.
They could claim that they were working to bring unity via the one unifying medium, the Web, and rightly so.
It was largely a synchronic world.
You sat at a computer, and did your computing.
When you were done, you switched it off and you left all of cyberspace behind.
Not today. It doesn’t work that way anymore.
As Mitchell says, things are increasingly smeared across multiple sites, devices, identities, and systems, in increasingly complex and undeterminate ways.
This is what we are talking about. What do you think? Are there more computers in this picture or more people? I’d bet my money on more computers. Smartphones, laptops, devices, appliances, tablets.
This is the average number of hours that EU citizens spend online per week.
It’s an average, that hides the 39 hrs/week of the Brits. More time online than hours in the working week, for some.
But it’s not being online sitting at a desk in the office, or in the home. Information is pervasive, it has bled into reality. It’s with us when we switch the computer off, because it bounces off a thousand other touchpoints. It’s systemic.
Through portable servers the size of your hand.
Through real-time displays.
Through tablets, smartphones, kiosks. This is a world of multiple Webs, and they are asynchronic.
Welcome to the world of postdigital.
In 1998, a momentous year it seems, Nicholas Negroponte of MIT wrote an essay for Wired titled “Beyond Digital”.
Negroponte believed digital was on its way to banality.
At a certain point, digital will be so intertwined with the fabric of day-to-day reality that we will only notice when it’s not there. Just like here, when the conference wi-fi goes down and you can here the “awwww” from miles away.
It will be the compost for new ideas.
And this is already happening. Think of how the simple use of a relatively simple tool like Google Maps has changed the way we experience a city.
An information-based ecosystem connects actors, devices, places.
They are everywhere.
This is where Mamuro Oshii and his Ghost in the Shell comes in. The movie is a sci-fi / cyberpunk opera questioning what it means to be human.
Major Kusanagi, the protagonist, is a police officer and a cyborg. She is trying to capture a terrorist called the Puppet Master who’s probably a runaway government project and who wants to merge his ghost, his conscience, with her shell, her body, into a new being.
This man is Gilbert Ryle, a philosopher. He wrote a book in 1949 called The concept of the mind, in which he attacked Decarte’s mind-body dualism. He spoke of ghosts in the machine.
There is no such thing as a ghost in the machine. Our mind is one with our body and viceversa. We are embodied beings. Just like Major Kusanagi, we have been ghost-hacked.
As embodied beings, we perceive reality through basic primitives that relate to our physical body. Space, time, place. This is where architecture comes in.
This is Paris in the 1920s.
This is a phone at the time.
These are two ladies on a coffee break. Probably a conference.
In these years, French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier writes his pamphlet, Towards a New Architecture. In it, Le Corbusier argues that architecture is falling behind.
Cars express the spirit of the times.
Factories and utility buildings express the spirit of the times. Houses do not. Architects are blind.
He will embody his ideas in many villas, machines for living, inspired by engineering, pure volumes. The aesthetics of the new century. These will be the roots of Modernism.
As a reaction, Postmodernism will be about relativity, the intellectual pastiche, and citations. Modernism is but the expression of a specific culture among many. There is no supreme truth, there is no sense.
Cloud Atlas is a very good example of postmodernist storytelling.
But then. Ask yourself: the world we live in, the Facebooks, the Twitters, the Paths. Is this an example of Postmodernism? Well, no.
Postmodern is still an old media cultural framing. It’s all about the author. We have stepped into a world of folksonomies and reality tv. It’s a world where users are producers, and the focus has shifted.
This is the world of pseudomodern.
It’s a world of wranglers, the world Bruce Sterling was talking about in Shaping Things.
A world where your disembodied selves are spread across channels, devices, and places.
This is not broadcasting anymore. But in some weird way, we are still framing our problems and our solutions that way. We don’t see the complexity, we don’t see the multiplicity, we don’t see we are postdigital. And we don’t do architecture.
Information architecture is needed. It’s the way out of the functional box of modernism and the endless, meaningless plays of postmodernism. It’s the way we produce sense. Giving structure, creating the possibility for many different orders.
We have to acknowledge this new spirit. When I was a student of architecture, a record store was what we designed when we were asked to give people access to music.
This is music today. It’s a flow. It’s information. It’s disembodied. It has no medium. It’s in a link. It’s on Youtube. It’s on Spotify. On my phone.
See it. There is a new spirit.
If you don’t believe this is all about information, what about this picture? A run-down industrial building, you say? Let me add a bit of information, if you will.
Suddenly, everything changes. I didn’t trick you. It’s information. It’s all around us. Design this, and embrace the new spirit.
Ghost in the Shell - Information Architecture in the Age of Postdigital
2013 IA SUMMIT – BALTIMOREINFORMATION ARCHITECTURE IN THE AGE OF POSTDIGITALANDREA @RESMINIGHOST IN THE SHELL