Defragmenting Society: How Networking is Redefining the Fundamental Notions of Society, Human Interactions and Space

A decade ago, when the first movie in The Matrix trilogy was released, it was a wild addition to the genre of science fiction. The Internet was relatively new, and its inherent potential was yet to be harnessed, or even realized. The Matrix was a metaphorical representation of cyberspace, as a virtual, intangible, parallel reality. Today, the existence of a hyper-Matrix in our highly networked society does not seem all that notional. Ours is an age of overlapping contradictions, parallel truths, and connectedness and disconnect existing in the same informal virtual space. Undoubtedly, we live in a well-connected world that grows closer and closer every day. Our power structure relies heavily on the flow of information in our virtual networks. Movies like The Matrix are conceivable because they become more achievable every day. We are plugged into a network, a matrix of information. Humans are social animals, and our societies have undergone evolution over ages, to reach a point of refined sophistication. Today, a re-evolution is taking place, in which our fixed notions of society are being overturned and questioned. Networking has become the driving force of our society. However, networks,
while drawing people closer to one another in the virtual realm, are also drawing people apart in the physical realm. What are the real world consequences of our increasing reliance on virtual networking, and what implications it may have on the design of the physical realm and on the future of the architectural discipline?


Edge of Chaos

Before the widespread use of the Internet, connectivity was directly proportionate to the speed of communication and transport. Networking is now independent of physical distance. It is thus, faster, easier, more reliable, and more sustainable than it has ever been before. It is inherent in the nature of networks that they are not static, but constantly growing, evolving and adapting. This means that our current trend of connectivity is not a trend at all, but a step up in our evolution as a society. Consequently, our society is now in a constant state of flux, balancing itself at the edge of chaos.

Networks are open systems, which can expand infinitely, integrating new nodes of communication in order to grow. A network-based social structure is similarly constantly kinetic, open-ended and can expand and evolve without threatening its equilibrium. Evolution and technology have converged to the point where we have entered a network society. The simultaneous creation and rapid exponential growth of virtual networks over the Internet are directly changing our conception of society from its core. Mass
communication is not restricted to an elite few, but is accessible by all. Only a few decades ago, it was difficult to imagine the ease of conducting business overseas without traveling, the live relay of not only sports and news, but war and natural disaster, the quick online polling for surveys and to project the common public opinion, and the rapid collection of funds for charity that we take for granted today. The structure of the network is decentralized and egalitarian. Local interactions between individual nodes create far-reaching global effects which are at once sustainable and evolutionary. Today’s network is so social, ubiquitous, and cheap, that it has now been taken for granted. According to Clay Shirkey, only when a technology is taken for granted can it reach the next step of innovation.


“…we have to acknowledge that the structure of the public sphere is undergoing profound changes, not only as telecommunication increases personal choices over a variety of public communication systems, but also as the same technologies are consumed increasingly in privatized and domesticated forms.”

~Christine Boyer


Flow of Control

The rapid update of information on the Internet means that books and other fixed media become obsolete almost before they enter into circulation. Initially, mass media dealt with the relay of information unidirectionally: from the creators of information to the receivers. This information was controlled by a small group of people, and was accessible to the masses in a prescribed format, such as print, radio, or television. Alternately, a two-way flow of information could be carried out only on a one-on-one basis, via telegraph or telephone. With the advent of the Internet, it became possible to integrate these two types of communication: a large (and expanding) group of people are now able to share information simultaneously and in real time. Today, information does not travel one-way, from the producer to the consumer, but travels in all directions, as for the first time, consumers are also producers in their own right.6 The Internet deals with enormous amounts of data (big data), and all information is treated equally, without attaching significance to its source or origin. Live spaces are identified as those with the highest density of connections. The introduction of the concept of open-source has brought about a revolution in the sharing of information and ideas. Today, it is possible to download resources and freeware such as processing and instantly upload results created using these software packages onto websites like to share with other users. Pre-packaged platforms like AutoCAD are quickly being replaced by customizable scripting tools, which can be altered by users themselves. It has never been easier to gain recognition for one’s work and to make it available for use by others without going through bureaucracy. In the same instance, it has also become easier to overlook contributors’ backgrounds and inclinations; their work is judged based purely on its content. The value and amount of intellectual contribution has never been higher.

This loss of the significance once attached to authorship and ownership of intellectual property mimics the concept of networking. Each node is only as important as its connections and its contribution. This is a turning point for creative networking. Isolated, individual effort has given way to integrated, collaborative contribution. The single genius has now been dissolved by a network of intellectuals working toward a shared vision, with a free exchange of information and ideas. With the rapid expansion of the virtual network, the need for physical connectivity diminishes. Professionals now collaborate online, without considering geographical disconnects to be a significant hurdle. It is now possible, and even commonplace, for architects to be located in different corners of the world and design together for a site physically inaccessible to any of the participants. Networking allows intellectual resources to be more evenly distributed, and specialists to contribute to remote geographical areas without having to physically relocate there. The image of the traditional workplace has been transformed, as peer-to-peer portals have replaced the boardroom. Open-source sharing has also affected human behavior and evolved social norms. Social networking websites are now allowing people to share personal information with a large network of their peers. It has been observed that people are more willing to share opinions and information about themselves, with or without privacy filters. The network acts as a support-group for attention-seeking individuals. According to Mark Zuckerberg, the age of privacy is over, and privacy is no longer a social norm. It is instead seen as a barrier to the free flow of personal data and chance interactions in cyberspace.


Single-serving Life

This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time. If you wake up at a different time, at a different place, could you wake up as a different person? Everywhere I travel; tiny life. Single-serving sugar, single-serving cream, single pad of butter, the microwave cordon bleu hobby kit. Shampoo-conditioner combos, sample packets of mouthwash, tiny bars of soap. The people I meet on each flight; they are single-serving friends. Between take-off and landing we have our time together, that’s all we get.
~Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk

With the emergence of a globally spread, scale-less, unbiased network, it is easy to overlook parts of society that are still in isolation because they exist only in the physical world. As a rule, the number of nodes within a network that are likely to be connected to is proportional to the number of nodes they are already connected to. Albert-László Barabási refers to this syndrome as the rich getting richer. Networked society
is the bourgeois of the Information Age, and conveniently turns its back on less connected social strata, contradicting itself by becoming more and more exclusive. This is where the chasm between the physical and the virtual lies.

Social media plays an active and significant role in widening the gap between the physical and the virtual aspects of life. This disturbing disconnect has gone largely unnoticed. The very idea of the existence of a disconnect seems absurd. The world is becoming more and more connected every second; how could one suggest that humans are not in touch with one another?

Nevertheless, rapidly growing virtual networks of today are not only connecting people, but also distancing them at the same time. In one instance, people are able to interact with one another as never before: communication is more accessible, faster, and decentralized. Portals like Facebook make it possible to search for old friends, colleagues and acquaintances, and keep in touch with almost every person you ever met. Instagram and Snapchat let you document and share every minute of every mundane day. Never before have people been able to keep count of their friends, and in the hundreds. On the flip side, distances between individuals have grown and the need for ‘real’ relationships has declined as online social networking creates the illusion of connectedness. Any given person has millions of virtual connections. However, how many of these connections are really valuable? How many are reliable? How many are real? Of the 365 virtual friends on Facebook, an average person may have only five to ten real relationships. As the number of connections increases, the intensity of the network decreases. Connections form and disintegrate with equal rapidity, without much thought to their formation or a sense of loss on their demise. With people from all over the world logged onto the Internet at different times, it is possible to have conversations with different ‘friends’ throughout the day, and eliminate loneliness altogether. It becomes an unnecessary effort to communicate and connect with people physically close but mentally distant. It is easier to choose relationships that do not require investment of time, energy, or responsibility.

Ironically, with so many virtual connections, we are becoming stunted both emotionally and intellectually. Virtual friendships lack the depth of real ones, which involve not only the transport of words, but also a physical and emotional association, and devotion of quality time and undivided attention. Social networking reflects the same shallowness that other forms of mass communication have ingrained in us. Anything relayed on television is considered trivial. War, suffering and catastrophe have lost their significance, as it is difficult to differentiate between the actual and the fictitious when both originate from the same source. In the virtual world, there is no sense of responsibility towards another person, and thus, an emotional disconnect. An increase in piracy and cybercrime are testimonies to the assumption that there are frequently no consequences to actions taken online. A lack of concern is the result of the disappearance of a fear of consequence. Thus, society as a physical unit seems to be disintegrating, and in the words of Christine Boyer, “…as online culture grows geometrically, the sense of community diminishes.”

The importance of physical connectivity is also disappearing. As the online community becomes stronger, it occupies a central role in society, and social and communal space is used less and less. As reality becomes immaterial, real issues seem surreal. Invisible virtual space replaces actual physical space. Our existing concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context, are based on physical manifestation, and are unsuitable for application to concerns that cannot be manifested physically. This calls for a re-evaluation of the role of the architect and of architecture itself.


The Generic City

Travelling to major cities the world over, you realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents. Your atlas preserves the differences intact: that assortment of qualities which are like the letters in a name. Is there such a thing as being too connected? Being in constant touch with the entire world is resultant not only in an exchange of information, ideas and trends, but also in a homogeneity that is gradually making all places uniform and similar. The distinctive qualities of place are chamfered over into a continuous surface that spreads evenly over the whole world. Our perceptions of space and time are being reformulated by networking, and spatial boundaries and distinctions become blurred so that, as Boyer argues in her book, CyberCities, “…all spaces begin to look alike and implode into a continuum…” The characteristic skyline of cities is no longer unique; anything that gave a city its uniqueness can immediately be replicated across the world in the form of kitsch. Inevitably, all cities will be devoid of character and any given city will look like any other.


Redesigning the Architect

Accordingly, our preconceived notions about architecture and the role of architects need to be readdressed from the point of view of our evolving society. Are the same principles of centralized city planning still applicable? Will we require the same kinds of spaces we have been using for centuries? How does technology redefine our physical urban fabric, and what implications does it have on the architectural discipline? How must design be approached in a highly connected, network-reliant society? Former Director of the Architectural Association, Brett Steel imagined that we need “…an intelligent reconfiguration of how architects work, and so learn, taking into account an interest in the bottom-up self-organizing design strategies, tools and techniques that characterize much of contemporary architectural practice and discourse.” Today’s pedagogical strategies, such as in the Design Research Laboratory at the AA School of Architecture, have begun taking into account the new notions of a network society. Collaborative teamwork challenges the long-standing prenetwork preoccupation with the singular mind. The self-organized design studio becomes more integrated and multipurpose: a studio, a conference space, a laboratory and a hovel. “…in important ways it has already been made invisible, owing to its ceaseless redistribution of bodies, information and ideas.”

The overlap and sharing of resources between disciplines has given way to the design of fabrication systems that are itinerant yet adaptable. The use of CNC technology has opened up a vast and potent field of digital fabrication that is as yet relatively unexplored. Revolutionary technologies like 3D printing, 3D scanning, robotic stacking, CNC-deposition and the use of drones are now being applied to architecture. These systems are not only relevant as novel fabrication methods, but can bring about change in the way design is approached, too. Design and construction overlap in real time, and can be freed from mass-produced materials, centralized planning or standardized software packages. Just as the network is decentralized, the realization of design ideas is also becoming distributed and localized. Using these technologies, it is now possible to create user-defined changes during the construction process, resulting in a highly-customized architecture. Users can remotely control the design and fabrication processes, employing the computer as a portal, such as in a
simulated virtual reality environment. The results, though, are physically manifested, making the process simultaneously virtual and real. The deployment of equipment directly onto a specific site makes it possible to build in remote locations that have no infrastructure or social layers that may not have yet been integrated into the global network, as my tutor Marta Malé-Alemany writes, “…allowing us to consider its material forms only as temporary reincarnations of a constantly evolving virtual system, based on an evolving production method and constantly changing user input.”

Still, in this increasingly challenging state of constant disarray, loss of ownership and multiple nodes, a singular solution is not the answer. Today’s overlapping, multifaceted problems call for a series of decentralized, adaptable, customized solutions. We are part of a cultural and intellectual revolution. The members of any revolution more often than not lose their frame of reference as they become one with the cause. It is important to step back and view the situation from a different perspective in order to be aware of one’s actions and so that we can be more strategic about them. In the words of William Mitchell, “…sustainability will depend on our ability to develop complex adaptive networks that unify people and cultures while at the same time nourishing instead of erasing their differences. If we are to succeed in this critical task, all architecture must become network architecture.” If we are to create this network architecture, a conscious shift in our preconceived notions about the role of cyberspace, the concept of society, and the design of physical space is necessary.

How we do this will define the next revolution.