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Extended Play

Authors, Agents, Agencies, and the Digital Public

Mario Carpo

Il presente saggio è stato scritto in occasione della nona edizione del festival di architettura BEYOND MEDIA che ha avuto luogo a Firenze, con il tema VISIONS, dal 9 al 17 luglio scorsi. Pubblicato all'interno del catalogo della manifestazione, il testo di Mario Carpo si è offerto come spunto e complemento dell'incontro "La visione costruttiva, oltre la standardizzazione", che Mario Carpo ha condotto nell'ambito del simposio curato da Pietro Valle.

What a difference a year can make. Twelve months ago, or perhaps eighteen, "Web 2.0" was a current, perfectly decent, and at times even pertinent expression. It was something we mentioned and occasionally discussed in classes and seminars. Today (May 2009) the term is carefully avoided by most -if not derided and vilipended, together with some of the stuff it used to stand for. As in 2000-01, when the burst of the first internet bubble phased out most of the "irrational exuberance" which had accompanied the rise of all things digital during the 1990s, another economic downturn is prompting a reset of our critical assessment of technological change. But let us not be misled by contingencies. For the last five years or so, the participatory use of digital technologies has been touted by liberal neoconservatives but also -for quite different reasons- by visionary libertarians. The free marketeers' dream of an almost infallible global marketplace driven by the "wisdom of crowds" and supported and enhanced by real-time, interactive digital technologies has been disproved by recent events: as it turns out, those purportedly frictionless digital markets were not less error-prone than all markets that had preceded them, digital or not. On the contrary, the crash of the neoliberal model is reviving some older notions of social responsibility, solidarity, and even mutual help: more by necessity than by choice, given the present devastation of the economic landscape in most developed countries (and elsewhere, by ricochet) this de facto shake-up will most likely mean, for some time to come, a bigger role for the state and a diminished one for the markets, and, in many aspects of life, economy and society, including architecture, a heightened demand for making more things public: a demand for more communal interaction, and for more and better forms of social and public participation. Digital technologies, as it happens, can help us promote, mastermind, design, and deliver just that.

Of course, participation in design is not a new thing in the history of architecture, and every recurrence of this very old notion elicits a variety of misgivings and fears, old and new alike. Unlike texts, images or music, buildings are not media objects; as we are told and reminded time and again, reinforced concrete is not as malleable as a webpage, hence we cannot realize a collaborative architecture as easily as a collaborative, on-line encyclopedia. This is of course a truism, but it is not necessarily true. Never mind that "authorial" architecture -the notion that buildings should be authored by someone in particular- is a fairly recent cultural and technical acquisition: the trend was started by Renaissance humanists, and there is plenty of architecture built before the rise of the Albertian paradigm in the West, and some even after that, to prove that a building can be built without any one name attached to it to take all the related credit or blame. We know who conceived Brunelleschi's dome, but we don't know who designed Chartres Cathedral. In point of fact, we do not even know if Chartres Cathedral was designed at all. Yet, evidently, it was built.

Less conspicuously, but more pervasively, recent software for Building Information Modeling is already providing powerful tools for real-time information sharing and interaction in various phases of the design process. Design versioning can now be so fast that design files can be as transient and evolutive as a Wikipedia entry -and, just like a Wikipedia entry, as collaborative and almost as anonymous. When too many authors intervene on the same file at the same time, at the end of the day it may be difficult to tell who did what- even when all changes are recorded and tracked. Interactive versioning is significantly different in spirit from the traditional, consensus-seeking modes of "design by committee": interactive versioning posits a never-ending accrual of independent, diverse and individual edits and changes, where consensus is neither sought for nor ever achievable, even though the game at some point must presumably stop, and the object be built.

The fact is that, in architecture no less than in most other fields of human endeavor, digital technologies are already redefining the traditional (early-modern, then modern) categories of authorship, agency, and intellectual ownership. From the very beginnings of the digital revolution we have known that the object of parametric design is a new kind of technical object: in Gilles Deleuze's and Bernard Cache's pioneering definitions, not an "object" but an "objectile"; in Aristotelian terms, a generic, not a specific object. An objectile is a family or a class of objects that are individually different but all similar, because they all share the same generative algorithm--the same code or mathematical function, or the same genotypic DNA, as it were. In technical terms, an objectile is an open-ended algorithm, or a generative, incomplete notation; and this necessarily means that every final incarnation of an objectile into an individual object requires the intervention of some additional agency that may be other than, and even unrelated to, the objectile's designer.

From its beginning, the theory of parametric design has thus postulated an inevitable, almost symbiotic relationship between two classes of authors: the designer of the objectile (the generic author, literally); and, at the opposite end of the chain, the final designer of the object: the end-user, customer or client that fine-tunes and customizes the general program to make one individual, specific object out of it. These two authorial roles are notionally separate and independent from one another: the author of the program (the designer of the objectile) is the real digital author; the end-user, who assigns values to parameters and turns the generic object into a specific one, should more appropriately be called, I would suggest, an interactor. In the same way, the author of a video game is the one that sets the rules of the game, whereas each player that adapts the game to her or his taste, invents a unique scenario and constructs her or his own special story within that game is only the ancillary, subordinate author of a plot to be played out within a universe invented by someone else. The designer of the game is the real digital author; the gamer is in a sense the co-author of her or his story, but in the general economy of the game, a gamer is only an interactor who takes advantage of the leeway that the designer of the game has devolved to all players.

This, at least, is the theory. In practice, these two stations of agency are often merged into one, as a single agent often does both jobs -first designing the general program, then finalizing one or more specific objects designed and made with it. This is normal and to some extent inevitable. The equivalent in the game analogy mentioned above would be a game designer who first designs a game and then, all alone, plays in turn all roles in it. Albeit often necessary to test or improve the program, evidently this should not become the only nor the primary destination of the game, as the game was originally designed to make other people play with it. Yet this solipsistic approach to parametric design is very popular among digital designers, as we all know. In purely technical terms, this use of parametric tools is stunted and defective, as it ignores or stifles some of the potential of digital technologies.

Equally inevitable, but more worrying, is another trend which has been gaining momentum of late, often surreptitiously and unbeknownst to some of its own victims, or participants. Many digital designers today are only self-delusional authors. In fact, in many cases, they have already abdicated all real digital authorship (as defined above) and confined themselves to the role of end-users, or interactors, of ready-made digital platforms preset, designed, and maintained by others. When proprietary machines and software for design and fabrication are offered on the market to be used on a time-sharing basis by paying customers, the designers that use them are game players, not game designers. As in all games, the gamers' leeway is limited, and not surprisingly all the objects made on the same CAD-CAM platform look similar, regardless of the identity of their pretended "authors".

Under different business models, this mode of parametric design is being tested, apparently with some success, as a viable avant-garde solution for the "non-standard" production of signature furniture and small objects, and also in more advanced technological systems for the fabrication of "non standard" cladding and paneling; soon, I anticipate, it may be offered by the makers of some new ductile building materials, popular among digital designers. But the term "non-standard" in this instance is a misnomer. These object may have unusual shapes (or "non-standard" geometries, whatever that means) but once designed they are serially reproduced, sometimes identically, as per the good old mechanical tradition. Witness their status as objets d'art, these are "old" objects in disguise. Indeed, even their designer's signature is misleading, as their real author is not the interactor that finalized them, but the company that owns the technology used to design and make them.

As not every designer can develop his or her own technical system, designers will have to cope with some such messy and ambiguous hybrids (and more of them, I presume, are forthcoming), and try and make the best of them. In practice, many trade-offs and compromises will be inevitable. But in theory, and ideally, the spirit of the game should not be lost, regardless of the roles we may be called to play. Open-endedness and variability are the quintessence of the technical logic of the digital age. Variability means interactivity and participation. First, as digital variations are theoretically infinite, no designer should expect to design them all alone. Life is too short for that. But also, crucially, in our current techno-cultural junction participation is more than an item in a vast panoply of technological supply. It is also, equally crucially, a vital component of a growing social demand.

As always, designers should choose. They can look backward, as nostalgic and reactionaries do; or look forward -as innovators and visionaries. They may want to design objects, and then be digital interactors. Or they may want to design objectiles, and then be digital authors. The latter choice is more arduous by far. Yet much is at stake. Objects belong to the old, mechanical world of identicality and products. Objectiles belong to the new digital world of variability and process. The old world offers a multiplication of choices in an ever-growing catalogue of ready-made products, hence consumerism. The new world promises seamless, on-demand customization through participation in decision-making and in the form-making processes, hence -ideally- social responsibility in design, and parsimony in the use of natural and human resources. But these promises come with strings attached. To embrace digital authorship in full, designers should first come to terms with some of its inevitable and less appealing corollaries, which may have vast consequences for our social and visual environments alike. In short, designers need to rise to the challenge of a new, digitally negotiated, partial indeterminacy in the process of making form. And this will not be easy, as none of us was ever trained to become a generic author.

Mario Carpo
[7 agosto 2009]
Bibliographical note:

On authorship and digital "interactors" see Janet H. Murray's pioneering Hamlet on the Holodeck. The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (New York: Free Press, 1997).

For further reference and bibliography, see:

- Mario Carpo, "Non Standard Morality: Digital technology and its discontents," in Architecture Between Spectacle and Use, ed. Anthony Vidler (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 127-142.
- Mario Carpo, "Revolutions. Some New Technologies in Search of an Author," Log 15 (2009): 49-54. Republished in English and translated into Italian and German in "Zona, 3," Abitare 489 (2009): 14-19, i-xvi.
- Mario Carpo, "Monstrous Objects, Morphing Things," Perspecta 40 (2008): 16-21.
- Mario Carpo, "The Bubble and the Blob," Lotus 138 (forthcoming).

  ARCH'IT books consiglia:

Paola Giaconia, Marco Brizzi (editors)
Image publishing, 2009
pp. 264, 22,00

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