If architecture is a form of conversation between a space and its inhabitants, to paraphrase Usman Haque, then the conversation between Haque and Adam Greenfield at Space Studios in Hackney was practically Victorian in its flourishes and monumental aspirations. Like the massive ribcage of old steel forming the roof of St. Pancras rail station, this two-hour-long conversation enclosed a sinewy, arterial mass of ideas including the politics of data gathering; the psychology of groups; the usefulness of collective action; the organizing principles of cities; the near-extinction of modern architects.
Usman is a formidable intellectual, as well as an artist and designer, as his published material shows. His past writings on theories of architecture and interactive design heavily integrate the ideas of mid-20th-century cybernetician Gordon Pask, a revolutionary thinker, artist, and engineer whose dense, technical prose requires the mental equivalent of Wellies to muddle through in the best of times.
Much more accessible are Pask’s art installations and educational machines, designed to test his theories about education and learning through feedback with the user and machine learning. Haque manages to follow Pask’s concept of design-as-conversation without resorting to twittering, banal exchanges. His works, presented in chronological order and loosely grouped by their mode of interactivity with participants, ranged from interactive living spaces full of light and noise (Reconfigurable House) to 1960’s inspired audiovisual phenomena (Primal Source) to his more recent evolutions of thought, based on a sort of ground-up, “power to the people” idealism, mass-organization of individuals around a single concept; for example, Sky Ear and its offspring, the Burble, each a modular, floating collection of blinking lights working off the invisible magnetic fields that cross-cross everyday, invisible, open space.
For Sky Ear and the Burble, each flying sculpture is assembled on-site by volunteers in a unique way, allowing the crowd to take some form of authorship over the finished work. Then, when released into the sky, the spectators/authors can use their mobile phones to affect the lights. Usman explained that one of his favorite moments was when a woman blogged about participating in the event, saying (paraphrased) “That bit is mine.” In his telling, this lady’s ownership of that bit of the work was absolute in her own mind, overtaking even his stake in the project.
Follow this trajectory of collective ownership to its logical conclusion and you get Pachube.com, an aggregator of collection of streams of real-time data, each set up by individuals, and free for all to use. It bills itself as a sort of YouTube for environmental data. All this may be a little abstract for most readers not versed in jargon-y Web2.0 speak (“what the heck is environmental data?” you might ask), and to be fair, it is a very abstract concept. There are a fair amount of data streams already available on the site, including temperature readings from specific places over time, carbon emissions, and energy usage. All this data is fairly easily available for use – they provide a Processing library, an open and easily-understandable data format, and detailed instructions for using it with Arduino.
Personally, I see Pachube as more of an artistic and intellectual statement than a Web2.0 business. That is not meant to slight it in the least, but on the contrary, it feels like a provocation of sorts. Give the world all the data it wants, on its own terms, and let it sort its own problems out. This incursion into the politics of data, or, as it was put in the conversation, “questioning the authority of data,” is lurking in the shadows behind Usman’s work.
Here, “the authority of data” is a bit less straightforward than it first appears. On a basic level, data such as the number of heart attacks caused by taking a certain drug seems like a simple matter of giving people the drug and counting the number of heart attacks. It’s not. There are all sorts of methods of counting, and extrapolating the possible number of heart attacks caused in the entire population by studying a small group, and all sorts of assumptions that go into those calculations. And, even before the study was started, someone decided what to look for (heart attacks) and what not to look for (basic arterial damage).
The politics of data are currently sparking over climate change. We have satellites, science stations, data from 100 years’ worth of temperature readings, and yet we still battle over the interpretations of the results. To paraphrase the conversation at Space, “Why did they put that sensor there, was there a motive behind it? Who collected the data, and why?”
Interesting to me is that these questions are asked by both the left and right of the political spectrum. It is becoming standard practice in politics to question the other guys’ data, their (usually sinister, in view of the other side) assumptions made in gathering it. Does this lead to a “Balkanization of data,” Usman asks? Will we spend all of our time gathering and analyzing data, nations of administrators and not free actors? Criminal lawyers vs. prosecutors, and vice-versa? Is the future a bit like Brazil (the movie)? Or is it not necessarily a bad thing that we slug things out over paperwork and not through physical violence?
These questions are not easily answered, if they can be answered at all. The solution Usman proposes, which is at the heart of many of his projects, is the idea of “bottom-up design.” If “top-down” design describes the classic design process, where a single designer or small team of designers and/or architects creates, say, a building or even a plan for a city (layout of streets, residential buildings, location and types of stores), “bottom-up” design gives the users (inhabitants, for example) the raw materials and lets them build what they like. Its a bit more thought-out than complete anarchy, in practice, and does contain elements of top-down design in that someone needs to think through what the raw materials of building will be and the mechanisms in which they are applied, as you can see in Pachube where the data formats are standardized and the ways of tapping into them are organized.
I’ve sidelined Adam Greenfield’s presence a little and focused on Usman, but of course Adam’s views and his unpicking of Usman’s work was a major contribution to this conversation. Both Adam and Usman have interesting and provocative ideas about the future (and even the present, really). What remains to be seen is whether their optimism about human nature and the potential of good design can prevail against the darker side of human consumption and the sometimes irrational nature of individual competition. Without getting into a side discussion on theories of governments from Adam Smith and Jefferson to Reagan, at the present I don’t think that Usman has proved his case for bottom-up design as a viable notion. However, given time, Pachube may make a very good case for it.