The continued pervasiveness of existent and emerging information technologies is certain to contribute significantly to the reconfiguration of the social relations that organize productive activity. Early signs of such a change can already be witnessed. The rapid growth of information technologies has altered how one is defined and categorized. Information or the lack thereof, is the new standard of measurement and definer of one’s position in social and economic strata.

Shoshana Zuboff, in her book In the Age of the Smart Machine: The future of Work and Power (1988) sees in these developments “a vision of a fruitful future, that can lead us beyond the stale reproduction of the past into an era that offers a historic opportunity to more fully develop the economic and human potential of our work organizations.” In reflecting on this statement and the entire volume of which this is a part, one must pose the questions, who is the us/our she is referring to, who is reading this, and who is she attempting to address. Perhaps the author possesses a genuine optimism that enables her to feel that hierarchical distinctions will begin to blur as a result of the pervasiveness of information technologies, but this would be naive. The us/our to whom she is referring can only be those in a position to make decisions as to the nature of such a revolution. The control of information technologies is in the hands of those who dominate and thrive on hierarchical distinctions and they will inevitably continue ‘stale’ tradition in order to keep the economy in a state of continual evolution and responsiveness to new conditions (such as emerging information technologies) such that existing power relations and structures are maintained and strengthened.

In his influential book, the Medium is the Message (1967), Marshall McLuhan optimistically claimed that the then new electronic information environment meant that the oppressed could no longer be contained, that information was too widespread, that revolutions would now be televised and a new access to information would lead to new participation. These predictions have proven accurate, to a large extent, and the 1991 Los Angeles uprising is an example. The symbol of unjust treatment (the beating of Rodney King) reached millions and when justice was not served, Los Angeles erupted as electronic information media televised the revolution: similar episodes of mass action began to appear elsewhere on the continent. Yet this did not go unanswered. There soon emerged a new symbol of what was taking place on the streets of Los Angeles. An innocent white truck driver, mercilessly beaten by four black youths came to replace all that proceeded it-an uprising or rebellion of an oppressed people was now portrayed as rioting, looting, and random violence. This strategic representation suggests that while aspects of Macluhan’s vision have been fulfilled, Zuboffs information ‘revolution’ has not taken place, with respect either to change in those or change of those who control electronic media information. Existing paradigms remain intact, but are aided by new and potentially stronger means of maintaining discipline.

In Foucault’s historical narrative, Discipline and Punish, the use of simple instruments – hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment and the examination – leads to the exercise of disciplinary power. For Foucault, visibility serves as a device to impose homogeneity on a group resulting both in the normalization of judgment as well as in an increased individuation of the subject. Examination creates a database of these newly objectified individuals whereby subsequent comparisons to surveilled subjects can be made. This facilitates, in turn, the establishment of relationships that lead to stratification. The current pervasiveness of information technologies shall result in an increase of precisely this disciplinary power. Hierarchical observation will become more extreme through the intensification of observation facilitated by electronic surveillance (of image and information). There shall exist a continued inverse relationship between one’s visibility and one’s position in social and economic hierarchies. The extreme will draw nearer as a result of the already widespread installation of surveillance apparatus, the accumulation and categorization of surveilled entities, and the ability to associate privilege through mechanized response to incoming information. In short, the means to exercise power over a subject through its visibility are being maintained and expanded.

The workplace ‘revolution’ foreseen by Zuboff is nothing but a mere blip in the continual evolution of capitalist structure. In fact, it is a new tool for the solidification and extremization of existing hierarchies. The various narratives of post-capitalism that emphasize only the new dimension opened by information technologies, neglect to acknowledge that the larger space remains that of the flexible structures of advanced capitalism.

Certain dualisms that have been persistent in western traditions and that have been fundamental to the logics and practices of the domination of women, people of color, nature, workers and animals – in short, that which has been constituted as other – have started to come under assault. Maker/made, organism/machine, culture/nature, man/woman, white/black are all traditional distinctions that are losing significance. As the dichotomic nature of such entities begins to dissolve, the oppositional clarity of their structure is increasingly being blurred by codes that tend instead towards an equivalency of language. This equivalence converges upon and directly reflects the evolution of information technologies. Utopic or to the contrary, there is a local goal of this ‘progress’ beyond the binary: the reduction of all entities to a common language, potentially capable of disassembly, reassembly, investment, and exchange.

Re/defining an entity can be likened to a feedback control system in which surveilled entities undergo codification, are then manipulated as code, and finally reach the stage of possible re/definition. This analog proves to be quite suitable. Rates, directions, and probabilities of flow become the new measures of maker/made, organism/ machine … which, through this feedback process, acquire a new semiotic equivalency. They become a part of a unified whole, subject to a potentially cyclic yet non-linear dynamic behavior where attractors may manifest themselves – perhaps new attractors, less oppressive and devoid of the dominator/dominated dualities of westem tradition.

Given a different discourse, however, an equally plausible future may be constructed wherein the codification of entities leads to a potentially increased exercise of disciplinary power. The intensification of observation facilitated by electronic surveillance of image and information as well as the continuing inverse relationship between visibility (and hence, susceptibility to codification) and position in stratified structures, may lead to the extremization of hierarchical observation. And while codification may result in the translation of entities (organic or not) into compatible codes – an equality of sorts – it also may facilitate the distinguishing of the coded entity such that its reassembly, disassembly, investment, or exchange might simply facilitate further stratification.

A ray of hope appears purely as a conceptual flash at the point in the model of a feedback control loop where all entities are equated in the form of compatible codes. It is here that there might exist the potential to reassemble this raw information into new relationships instead of either replicating the stale traditions of hierarchical distinction and domination of “the other” stale distinctions that architecture generally reinforces. If architecture is to be an integral component of an information based reality, where all is neither distinct nor the same but rather compatible, it must get beyond responses that address space in terms of historical values and seek new paradigms. But what is currently being endorsed by the profession and given impetus by developing technologies – the aesthetic militarization of the architectural object, virtual realities that remain nonetheless in the lineage of modernist architectural space, or numerous other traditional incarnations of the narrative of architecture’s salvation – will see architecture lose its relevance in the sphere of the everyday.

Conventional architectural values must be supplanted by a tendency towards immaterialization. The realm of simulation has greater potential than form. Architectures that shape the disassembly, reassembly, investment, and exchange of coded information must be pursued and must be situated at the interface between code and re-defined entity. This may allow architecture to establish a new relevance and permit, through the specific naturing of events, the escape from the oppression of traditionalist dualisms as well as from the fear of difference.

Gordon Kipping is a graduate student at SCI-Arc.

Back to August 1993 Newsletter