Dystopia as Context

Whose Side Will Architecture Take – Sam Eadington

If architects want to see their own future all they need to do is start scraping the depths of their dystopian dreams for clues of where their profession is heading. There is nothing new or unique in the adoption of dystopia as a source for creative inspiration. It has been a reliable fuel source for student architecture projects over the years, often resulting in a collective patronising sigh from industry as it laments the new batch of workers’ decreasing preparedness for the ‘realities’ of the workplace. But with TV shows such as Black Mirror and The Thick of It, not to mention the adverts, proving to be more accurate forecasters of our future reality than any opinion poll, maybe it’s time we stopped sneering at those worst case scenarios and took time to consider them as valuable glimpses of the world we may soon be designing for.

Had somebody sat you down a year ago and explained how events would unfold in the upcoming 12 months you couldn’t have been blamed for thinking they were a tad paranoid, one of those conspiracy types. But looking back it’s clear that the signs were all there laid out for us to read, had we only chosen to pop our heads outside of our infamous ‘echo chambers’. Well, that’s one way of seeing it. More realistic, perhaps, is that the clues were there, just that they were buried among the rest of the news telling us that the petty party politics, increasing inequality and pig fucking prime ministers are absolutely normal – nothing to see here. What we have just witnessed is quite special, the decades of decisions that lead us here, and the blame-filled aftermath (which is in fact not merely an aftermath but our present, a moment in its own right) will be forensically dissected, analysed and theorised for generations to come. But we know this don’t we? And we’re sick of paragraphs like the one I’ve just written, looking back at pre-brexit Britain with an unironic nostalgia. The past has gone so get over it, and quickly, because there’s a future ahead and if we’re not careful it’ll be full of forces far more dangerous than an unelected Prime Minister screeching ‘will of the people’ as she hands over the NHS to Baron Trump as Thanksgiving gift and symbol of our shared commitment to democracy.

A new era defining context is emerging as a result of the increasingly wide chasm between the regressing political and economic systems on the one hand, and rampant technological advancements on the other. How can we expect our leaders to make sensible and informed decisions on issues as philosophically challenging and nuanced as the ethics of new technology when they still can’t understand that refugees are people? We can’t. In these times of moral anarchy architects are not exempt from those who need to start taking responsibility for their own decisions and the profound implications they have on the lives of so many. Sadly the plague of apathy towards social responsibility that affects swathes of today’s architects hardly paints an optimistic picture of moral integrity. Trump won’t struggle to find architects prepared to build his wall, he’ll just grab a few from the queue of those waiting for their chance to ‘regenerate’ flattened council estates.

Stories of phones and other gadgets ‘listening in’ on their users were not so long ago confined to online forums alongside cat memes and arguments about the best flavour of crisps never to have existed. In recent weeks articles have been popping up all over mainstream media from sources including the BBC and The Guardian . This is in no small part down to the latest Wikileaks revelation that the CIA, and pretty much anyone else with the knowhow can hack into smart TVs. No connected gadget is safe, therefore no interaction with – or even within earshot – any gadget is safe from hacked, tapped and snooped on. The thing is, there’s little to back up any suggestion of this happening illegally. Most of the privacy we surrender has been done with our consent, you know, when we agreed to the terms and conditions. There is also little verified proof that the corporations that hoard our data are using it for malicious ends.

So what’s the problem? And where do architects fit into all of this? Well, there are two developments – one that is almost inevitable, another which is hopefully less so – which together could bring the dawn of dystopia far closer to our breakfast tables than any of us are really prepared for.

First is the matter of scale. At present the vast majority of connected devices we use are single objects like phones, laptops, watches and TVs. These devices can be connected with each other using other devices like the Amazon Echo, and thus we have the internet of things. But importantly these are all still things and you could, if the thought of the CIA knowing your iPlayer habits and listening to you passionately correcting misinformed TV presenters becomes too much to handle, throw them all in a river, be done with it all, and live a civilized offline life. But things are changing, and this is where the architects are brought into play.

Rem Koolhaas famously used his directorship of the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale to point out that architects had surrendered all but the thin surface skins of their buildings to technologies, systems and installations. As you would expect from someone as prominent in the world of architecture as Koolhaas, this is an exaggerated generalisation, but not one without truth and cause for concern. Architects are oblivious and complicit to what goes in their buildings. Did Rem say that or did I? Buildings are already laced with nervous systems of cables, pipes and tubes for one purpose or another, and it’s only a matter of time before internet connected devices join the party and hook rooms, buildings and even spaces into the internet of things. It’s the ‘smart city’ we’ve all been asking for. But what happens when you want to unplug? You can’t throw your house into the river, at least not without making a scene.

Elevation, section and plan of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon penitentiary, drawn by Willey Reveley, 1791

Elevation, section and plan of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon penitentiary, drawn by Willey Reveley, 1791

The second matter is that of authority and security. At present we in the western world are ruled by governments who spy on each other as well as their citizens. To what extent it is not known. My guess would be that it’s too much, but not as much as Ms May and many others would like. While government and corporate transparency about their snooping is not acceptable, the future holds the potential for things to get so much worse.

Comparisons between current political situations across the globe and oppressive historic regimes are being made again and again, to the point where many people are become immune to these alarm calls. Trump is the new Hitler, we were told, until Erdoğan informed us that the Netherlands is in fact the new Hitler. The Mark Twain quote “history never repeats itself but it rhymes”, if taken as prophecy points to times of revolutionary volatility just over the horizon. Whether our structures of power in their current form can withstand the ever changing forces that could be unleashed is yet to be seen. The rise of the far right has taken place within the democratic system, and should that system buckle, or even slightly bend under the strains that await then power voids will open, and there’s no shortage of oppressive ideologies waiting to fill them. Imagine the networked smart city in the hands of Nicolae Ceaucescu, or the man everyone’s fighting to impersonate, Adolf Hitler?

It’s easy to get carried away. The likelihood of events unfolding like this? Pretty low, I’d like to think. But however improbable, historical precedent shows us that such a descent into dystopia is far from impossible, and we’re hardly running in the opposite direction. Just as engineers design structures capable of withstanding loads well in excess of any worst case scenario, architects must do the same from a sociopolitical standpoint. Dystopia, and the role of architecture within it must be explored to it’s most horrific and oppressive depths. A Blade Runner remake, anyone? The lucid imaginations of architects have so much more potential than continually hunting out new ways for developers to squeeze maximum profit from planning laws, and poor people from their houses. Architects must resist the urge for perpetual novelty, reject the bliss of ignorance and question the comfort that comes with complicity. Architects build the future, and right now the future needs a guiding hand.

Words – Sam Eadington

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One Response to “Dystopia as Context”

  1. […] This is an article I (SE) wrote as a Feature for Design Exchange Magazine […]

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