Multiple networks of globalization

  • Publish On 11 January 2017
  • David Ruy

For David Ruy, the key change in contemporary globalization lies in the way it is narrated, departing from the naive optimism in the beginning and now moving on to new fears, with each technology seemingly creating its own threats. Nevertheless, humankind will not renounce this knowledge and we will witness the emergence of new worlds based on technological platforms that will provide them with both coherence and communicability. David Ruy is convinced that we are starting to experience a shift in the metaphor of nature, which in earlier times was based on divinity, then later on the machine, and now, on the computer. This connection between nature and computation appears in his eyes to be the major challenge of tomorrow’s architecture, as a hybrid practice informed by new concepts in philosophy, especially Speculative Realism.

David Ruy is an architect, co-director of the Ruy-Klein agency in New York, and teaches at SCI-Arc à Los Angeles.

Stream: We started from the idea that global urbanization is now a fact. It was theorized in the 2000s by Rem Koolhaas, Saskia Sassen, or in the book Mutations. This being said, what has changed during the last decade? What are the key factors in the evolution of this global urbanization?

David Ruy: It’s interesting to see how since 9/11, globalization is no longer celebrated without some reservation. We have become painfully aware of all that is problematic about it. Globalization has presented difficulties since the beginning, but the general hope has always been that it would be a net gain for civilization. When those towers came down, I think we could sense that an important line was crossed in history. A few months after that terrible day, I was at Kennedy Airport in New York, and I lingered at Eero Saarinen’s beautiful TWA terminal. It had been recently announced that TWA would shut operations and flights would no longer leave from this building that had so beautifully symbolized the future at one time. It was troubling to see that everything that was promised about the future had actually come true but with consequences never anticipated.

Technological globalization

Ultimately, I’m less focused on the politics of 9/11, and more on how such events are a possibility within the technological regimes of contemporary civilization. Globalization, beyond political policies, is only possible because of things like mobile phones, the Internet, airplanes, cargo ships, virtualized capital, and the like. As astonishing and liberating as these technologies can be, it is remarkable and disturbing that every technology also seems to open up a completely new form of danger. I’m still amazed that I can jump on an airplane, fly to another part of the world and withdraw my money in a foreign currency from a machine using a piece of plastic inscribed with a magnetic code. It is also amazing that someone in another part of the world can hack the database of an online merchant that I bought something at and retrieve the very same code and withdraw the same money. The very same airplane that I flew to Paris in could easily have carried the next flu pandemic. These are just small examples of scenarios that are thrilling, terrifying, and unprecedented. Despite the fact that these types of scenarios inspire a great deal of negativity regarding technology and globalization, it seems naïve to me to think that these problematic innovations can somehow be reversed. Technology is not some external malevolent force, it is instead an embodiment of our knowledge. We can’t un-know what we know.

What has certainly changed in the last decade is that the narrative of globalization no longer reads like a fairy tale. At the start of the century, Google famously framed their informal corporate motto, “Don’t be evil.” I can only shake my head in amazement at how quickly that childlike aspiration changed. With everything we learned recently about the NSA’s activities, it is impossible to look at a company like Google today as a liberating force for positive change. However, Google shouldn’t be singled out, as they are just one of many actors that are now designing and constructing the infrastructure for globalization 2.0.

Though much of our attention is on the very old political battlefields, much of what has come and is yet to come is now being formulated in the technological arena. Beyond the political will to communicate and circulate globally are the technological platforms that allow this to occur. Whether it is Monsanto patenting and trading your DNA, or your love letters sitting in some server in a data center, or  Amazon sending you a book before you even knew you were going to order it, or your selfies sitting on Facebook for years after you die, these are just dress rehearsals for far stranger platforms that will constitute what we will eventually call “the world.”

Réseaux multiples © David Ruy

What might turn out to be the strangest thing about the next version of globalization is the emergence of not one but many worlds. Each of these worlds will be defined not by human experiences but by the technological platforms that give each world coherence and the ability to communicate to itself. And, inevitably, each of these worlds will have a tendency to close off from the others, or at least, to miscommunicate with the others. Our habits are structured or “formatted” according to the mutations of our technological regimes. This has always been true to some degree. However, the proliferation of platforms is becoming a disturbing trend because the frustration we’ve all experienced with regard to file formats might become a problem regarding life itself. We’ve all had a file that we’ve invested a lot of work into that we could not open because we switched platforms. What if we’re not talking about files in the near future but persons? Globalization depends on the universality of the formats in which its actors operate. And if in globalization 2.0, we have multiple formats that vie for supremacy, how global will globalization actually be? How much of our happiness will be constrained by the transportability of our formatting? These transformations to our civilization largely remain invisible, which is why much of what I’m saying here will probably sound strange to most people.

My concern as a cultural practitioner is how culture is being leveraged today to distract us from these mutations. It raises many difficult questions about the efficacy of architecture, and its capacity for participating in the shaping of a future. One of my favorite watches is the Rolex GMT. It is a beautiful watch that was designed for the first transatlantic commercial pilots and was given to the Pan Am pilots who made the first journeys. It was designed to keep track of multiple time zones and embodies in its design all the glamor and promise of a global, internationalized life. You see, pilots don’t wear this watch anymore except maybe out of nostalgia. You see it more on the wrists of bankers on Wall Street as a precious object of desire. It’s rumored that Saarinen’s TWA terminal will be reopened soon as a restaurant or shopping area. It’s been owned by Jet Blue for a number of years now, and it’s just been sitting there for symbolic purposes, much like the Rolex on the banker’s wrist. One can’t help but conclude that behind these beautiful objects is a less visible object that wields more influence on our lives.

Some metaphors of nature

Stream: Do you think we live in a new era, an era of anthropogenic rupture? That it’s possibly too late, we’ve gone too far ?

David Ruy: From a geological perspective, the Anthropocene seems to be pretty much a fact at this point. Setting aside cultural perceptions, just examine the actual geology. Drill a hole in the ground and extract a cylindrical cross section. In the boring sample, you’ll typically see distinct lines that mark the major geological periods. For example, the last such period was the Holocene. We trace that to the last major line that appears in the cross section. What drew that line? The Ice Age. Though it is still up for debate, there appears to be a new line visible marking the start of a new geological period, the Anthropocene. What drew that line? It was us, through pollution, agriculture, mining, and, of course, building. Civilization has become a force of nature. This should be a cold shower for humanists. Any persisting desire to separate the human being as a special case of being now seems hopelessly nostalgic. Whatever nature is, if there actually is such a thing, we are part of it too.

The Copernican revolution was founded on the realization that the earth is not at the center of the universe. I think we have another such revolution where we are starting to realize that the human being does not have a special ontological status that is outside of nature. I don’t think we properly appreciate the implications of this revolution. This is not a call to reject civilization and embrace “the natural.” I am deeply suspicious of the tendency to valorize nature as somehow possessing an intelligence that we don’t have (which I think is superstitious). When we say “nature” isn’t it weird that what comes to mind is a lush green forest with a lake and mountains in the background? We don’t think of bacteria in the stratosphere; we don’t think of bioluminescent marine life; we don’t think of the boiling cauldron of ammonia on Jupiter. Most of all, we don’t think of ourselves. We have to acknowledge that our pastoral desires still extend from the Romantic period. We really need to get past this.

"Solar House Prototype", building components © David Ruy, Ruy Klein

I’m not a doomsayer, however. There are profound dangers in the environment, but I don’t think we’re living a condemned existence. However, I’m pretty sure that sustainability as it is understood today is a deeply unsatisfactory response. In my view, sustainable and mainstream ecological practices are political palliatives and underscore a deeper problem regarding the management of risk in capital investments. I think it is far more likely that all of these planetary problems like climate change, the erosion of the pedosphere, the eventual depletion of fossil fuel energy reserves, the poisoning of food and water supplies will ultimately require solutions that will be shockingly unnatural (from our current perspective) and technologically aggressive. It won’t be pretty.

Stream: You define architecture as being caught somewhere between nature and technology, and you say that you work at this intersection. Can you explain this idea?

David Ruy: The two most noticeable movements of the past two decades have been the one towards nature and the one towards computation. The past two decades have seen not only the birth of the sustainability and green agendas but also a thorough incorporation of digital tools that has completely changed how architecture is designed and built. These two historical trends have generally been understood as separate phenomena, but I think they are intimately linked.

"Pangaea", Nodoeul Island © David Ruy, Ruy Klein

The ecologist Daniel Botkin writes something very interesting in his book Discordant Harmonies. He points out that in Western civilization, there have been two dominant metaphors for nature. In antiquity, you have the metaphor of nature as divinity (Poseidon rules the oceans, etc.), followed in the age of enlightenment by the metaphor of nature as machine (a kind of grand calibrated clockwork). In the first case, humanity is victim to this great unknowable power that either provides for us or destroys us. The second case is more interesting. Nature as a great machine implies a steady state, but more importantly, implies that the human being is outside that machine. And what does humanity do? We break that machine. We throw the clockwork out of time. It is then the burden of the enlightened mind to understand and care for this grand machine. We have to be careful not to break it with our greedy, imprudent nature. As you can probably see, many of our attitudes even today extend from this metaphor. Botkin provocatively points out that what we are probably seeing today is the emergence of a third metaphor: nature as computer. Biologists today are decoding your DNA. (What is DNA? It is code.)

Theoretical physicists postulate black holes as giant quantum computers. Mathematicians study one-dimensional cellular automata as a possible explanation for seemingly random patterns in natural objects. Engineers use computer simulations of wind, seismic movements in the earth’s crust, fracture dynamics of materials to implement building designs. I could go on like this for a while. However, I don’t think I would go so far as to claim that nature is actually a computer. Rather, I find it interesting and illuminating to see that this is a new metaphor for our moment in history. This analysis truly links the nature discourse with the computation discourse, and I think architecture should respond to this because it is here, at the intersection of the two, where I think the deepest innovations will occur and where the most progressive expressions of our time will be designed.

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