Triple Canopy Interview

Netlab Director Kazys Varnelis was interviewed by online magazine Triple Canopy on infrastructure, political stalemate, the dangers of collapse, and policy.

HB:BX Competition

Netlab Director Kazys Varnelis serves on the jury for the HB:BX competition.

HB:BX is an open international ideas competition to design an arts center that culturally reinforces the physical connection between the Manhattan and Bronx Highbridge communities of New York City. This competition is hosted by the Emerging New York Architects Committee (ENYA), AIA New York Chapter, in cooperation with Artists Unite and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and it is meant to draw awareness to the current efforts to restore and reopen the bridge.

More on HB:BX at their Web site.

Interview with Joseph Tainter on Collapse

KV: In your book you argue that civilizational collapse, as it took place in ancient societies such as the Chou Dynasty in China, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, and Ancient Rome is “a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by complexity and why it leads to collapse?


JT: I approach complexity from the perspective of an anthropologist. In our field one of the oldest questions is how and why human societies evolved from relatively simple and undifferentiated to complex and highly differentiated. Complexity in the framework I use consists of two components: structural differentiation and organization. Structural differentiation refers to the development of new categories of social roles, institutions, information, settlements, occupations, technologies, etc. Organization is how those are constrained so that they behave to form a system. If everydone does as they please there is no organization, and structural elements cannot form a system. Organization limits and channels behavior. So increasing complexity consists of increasing differentiation of structure combined with increasing organization. With a collapse, an established level of complexity is quickly lost.


KV: So as civilizations develop, you conclude, they differentiate—for example, by creating highly specialized social roles—and build greater and greater levels of organization that require higher investment of energy to maintain. Eventually the marginal returns on investment decline and civilizations either figure out how to deal with that situation or collapse. You note that from the perspective of humans as a species and hominadae as a family, complexity is quite unusual. Most of our existence has been in small settlements or nomadic groups that have relatively little differentiation and low levels of complexity.


Today we are living in the most complex society that has ever existed, yet we’ve avoided collapse thus far. Why is that?


JT: Diminishing returns to complexity are probably inevitable, but collapse doesn’t necessarily follow. Collapses are actually not that common. There are several ways to cope with diminishing returns to complexity. One is to find energy subsidies to pay for the process. That is what we have done with fossil fuels. And it is a big part of why a future crisis in fossil fuels is the most important thing we should be worrying about.


KV: All but a few geologists suggest that a decline in fossil fuel extraction is inevitable. In 1998 Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah said "The oil boom is over and will not return... All of us must get used to a different lifestyle." Are we doomed?


JT: The critical point is when we reach peak oil. This is the point where 50% of recoverable reserves have been extracted. At this point, production might be kept level for a few years with heroic efforts, but soon production will start to decline. And every year after that there will be less oil available than the year before. One of the challenges with peak oil is that you know you’ve passed it only in hindsight. So there is naturally controversy about how close it is. Some analysts think we have passed it already, but the effect is masked by the economic downturn. How badly peak oil affects us depends on how quickly we bring alternative energy production systems into place. If we delay too long, the party will be over. This is a real danger. Developing new energy sources is the most important thing we can do.


KV: What about technological innovation? The spread of digital technology, the Internet, and mobile technology contributed to the economic recovery during the last fifteen years. There has been a bit of talk about innovating our way out of this recession too, for example through urban computing, green architecture, or investment in new kinds of infrastructure. Is such optimism in technological solutions warranted? Are there pitfalls to it? Are there other means by which we can avoid collapse?


JT: Short answer: It’s complicated.


Long answer: Technological-innovation-as-savior is part of our cosmology. It is a fundamental part of our beliefs, so frequently we don’t think about it rationally. Relying on technological innovation to find some solution is what I call a faith-based approach to the future. There are two things about technological innovation that concern me. The first is that, like other endeavors, research grows complex and costly and can reach diminishing returns.


This is covered in the Collapse book so I won’t elaborate here. The second problem is what is known as the Jevons Paradox. William Stanley Jevons, a 19th century British economist, pointed out that in the long run technological innovations aimed as at using less of a resource actually lead to even more of the resource being used. His example was coal, but the principle applies across the board. As technological innovation leads to economy in using a resource, people respond to the lower cost by using even more. I conclude from this that technological innovations can offer only short-term advantages. They quickly become outdated, then the next round of innovations may be harder to achieve.


KV: Beyond outright collapse, is it possible to have partial collapses of complexity? Given that I go to see my parents in Lithuania frequently, I am fascinated by the ruins of the Soviet Empire. This wasn't an outright collapse, but certainly a major level of social organization was shed.


JT: The term “collapse” has, of course, many colloquial meanings, and often it is applied to the demise of political entities. For academic purposes I prefer to use it to mean a rapid, substantial loss of complexity. With the end of the Soviet Union there was certainly some reduction in complexity, coming mainly in the form of a diminishing of organizational control. But this was not comparable with the loss of complexity in western Europe at the end of the Western Roman Empire. So the end of the Soviet Union may have been like other collapses in some ways, but it was not similar in scale.


KV: Similarly, I wonder about the role complexity played in this recession. If the popular sentiment was—until quite recently—that all of our access to information turned financial decision into a very rational enterprise, this turned out to be utterly false. One of the key problems with the financial instruments such as tranches and collateralized debt obligations is that they were simply too difficult for most people, even the MBAs, to understand. Is this recession an attempt of the system to get rid of toxic complexity?


JT: Keep in mind that complexity emerges to solve problems. In regard to the economic crisis, part of the problem was insufficient complexity. Remember that complexity includes both differentiation of structure and increase in organization. The financial business had over the last few years innovated new structures—new fiscal products such as derivatives. This was not met by an increase in organization, which would have involved regulation and government oversight. The problem emerged because the financial system (involving both the private and public sectors) was not complex enough. Now it appears that the government will add the organization, but of course too late in regard to the current crisis.


KV: Yes, of course, you're right. Corporations strove to create deregulated business environments and yet all that seems to have backfired.


Let me bring up one more example: I recently edited a book exploring the fate of infrastructure in Los Angeles, although it could really have been any major city in any developed country. Our conclusion was that the sort of infrastructure that we built in the early 20th century—think of Wililam Mulholland constructing the Los Angeles aqueduct to carry water down two hundred, twenty-there miles from the Owens River or the city's freeways—is a thing of the past. As individuals became more concerned with their property values and quality of life, they also became more adept at defending them. Homeowner's organizations, neighborhood groups, and ad hoc alliances of community residents are incredibly good at making sure that infrastructural interventions will not impact them and displace such projects or forestall their construction. At the same time, public agencies have also become keen experts at defending their turf. Infrastructure, we observed, follows a curve of diminishing returns. Adding another lane to an overcrowded city freeway, for example, would cost a tremendous amount of money—likely a billion dollars a mile—and cause massive disruption, but would only alleviate congestion for a few years. As semi-autonomous systems interfere with each other, layers of complexity form that can be very hard to get adequate returns from.


JT: Public involvement in governmental decision-making generates what I call an escalation dynamic. It is a like an arms race, but of course usually non-lethal. As public groups become successful at contesting government decisions, government agencies must get better at formulating and defending those decisions. This drives up costs. In the U.S. Forest Service (where I once worked and saw this process in operation) this came to be called “analysis paralysis.” Then, as the government gets better at defending decisions, public groups must themselves become better at contesting decisions. They also must raise money for lawyers and specialists. The cost of both formulating and challenging decisions is driven upward in a spiral.


Adding an extra lane to a freeway does, of course, put one in the realm of diminishing returns. But I realized long ago that such projects are not only about transportation. They are equally about politics, interest groups, and employment. The decisions will therefore not necessarily be economically rational.


KV: Modern architects believed that architecture would be able to solve society's problems by creating more powerful systems of organization to get rid of malfunctioning, older ones. In the 1960s and 1970s, all this changed. Architects began to find ways to value complexity and congestion. In his 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction, Robert Venturi all but defined the future trajectory of the field by suggesting that complexity should be embraced by architects living in a complex culture. In other words, he called for architects to abandon the modernist idea of forcing a simple building to hold a complex program and complicated physical plant. Instead, Venturi advocated complex buildings that would acknowledge the contradictions inherent in highly organized life to the extent that they even anticipated their own failures. Meanwhile in his 1978 Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas suggested that congestion was what made cities vital. If these books animated much of architectural thought into the last decade,


it strikes me that we are now in a time of over-complexity and over-congestion, a period in which complexity is getting away from us. Whether its trying to get a new subway built in New York, a high speed rail line built between San Francisco and Los Angeles, managing my insurance policy or just getting my universal remote to work, the levels of complexity we've built appear to be spiraling out of control. And then of course there's peak oil looming. It's not clear to me what we do in such a situation. Do you have any thoughts on this?


JT: Congestion does not necessarily equal complexity (in my conception). Congestion may mean a lack of complexity (insufficient organization). The irony of complexity is that it simplifies. That is, elaboration of structure and organization simplifies and channels behavior. Isn’t this was Le Corbusier was trying to accomplish? Le Corbusier wanted to design complex systems—systems that were highly structured and organized. The trouble is that in the human realm you can’t design a truly complex system from the top down. The Soviets tried that, as did the Brazilians with Brasilia.


A few years ago I was asked to talk at TTI Vanguard, a group that sponsors quarterly workshops on cutting-edge issues in information technology. The topic was “The Challenge of Complexity.” The first talk was by a computer professor at UCLA who was originally from New York. He used Holland Tunnel to illustrate network congestion, implying that it had a problem of complexity. When a stoplight was added at Holland Tunnel, traffic throughput improved. When it came my turn to talk I pointed out that the problem of Holland Tunnel was insufficient complexity—that is, insufficient organization. The stoplight increased organization, simplyfying the system and making it function better.


KV: I was struck by how in Collapse you suggest that collapse was actually preferable for many of the people who experienced it.


JT: Western European peasants saw their taxes drop and probably saw more of their children survive. But times became more violent and less certain. In the Maya area, perhaps 1,000,000 people died around the time of the Maya collapse. It’s a matter of perspective. For those who survive, life may be better. But usually it is not better for the elites.


KV: How do we survive this period of diminishing returns and crisis? As a civilization and as individuals? How do we live with crisis?


JT: I am often asked questions like this, and I am less optimistic now that I once was. Certainly we need new energy sources or the future will be very unpleasant. But new energy creates its own problems, which in time we will have to address. We can foresee this with nuclear energy and its waste. Even so-called "green" energy sources will be environmentally damaging. All of our adaptations are short term. They solve immediate problems but set the stage for future problems. Eric Sevareid once said "The chief source of problems is solutions." He was right, but that does not mean that we forego solutions. I like to use an athletic metaphor to think about sustainability. It is possible to lose—to become unsustainable and collapse. But the converse does not hold. There is no point at which we have "won"—become sustainable forever. Success consists of staying in the game.


Arguably the entirety of architectural production in the last forty years has been dominated by the problem of complexity. Whether architecture that wears the difficulty of complex programs and requirements of contemporary society on its sleeve, that tries to reduce such complexity by providing a neutral background, or that aims toward resolution through a complex but smooth multiplicity (be it a folded or bloblike), complexity is the main problematic facing architecture since high modernism.

This should come as no surprise. As a political project, modernism ran aground on complexity, its processes of abstraction unable to adequately describe the multifarious conditions of modern culture. Our society may well follow it. As archaeologist Joseph Tainter describes, complexity is a toxic by-product of advanced societies, slowly choking them as it demands such societies invest ever-higher levels of energy to maintain their structures. Our daily experiences with bureaucracy, jammed infrastructure, and failing technology serve as clear evidence of this.

Tainter offers two solutions to the problem of complexity. The first is collapse. Once societies can no longer provide sufficient returns, individuals make the choice to leave the complex society, to “walk away” from it all. As the society sheds layers of complexity, it reverts to a more primitive order. To a minor degree, last year’s stock market crash was an example of that, as society strove for a “reset” against the surreal complexity of financial instruments such as derivatives and credit default swaps. More dramatically, the collapse of the Soviet Union demonstrates a condition where individuals left an intolerable condition en masse. Or in the case of the fall of the Roman Empire, for many of the individuals involved, the collapse seemed to be progress. The second solution is more optimistic and is the one that the majority, but not all, of the members of this school would support: technological innovation. Technologies that allow for greater efficiency or new sources of energy allow complexity to endure, even when it would have produced collapse under an older condition.

But collapse is hardly a model for a studio and endless promises of technological innovation lead to boredom. A third option, perhaps more potent option presents itself: evil.

If one simply does not care about playing by the rules of the game, but only about seizing power to further one’s own ends, it becomes possible to shed layers of complexity and thereby continue society.
The human cost, of course, is quite high, as Mussolini’s quest to get the trains to run on time in Italy demonstrates. Still, with the recent economic success of authoritarian regimes—and the open advocacy of such regimes as clients by notable architects such as OMA—evil is on the table again as an option for architects to pursue.

Nor is this new to architecture. The history of architecture is marked by numerous works for evil patrons, for example, the Tempio Malatesta, the Casa del Fascio, the Palace of the Soviets, the Zeppelin field at Nuremberg, the Glass House, Neverland, Ryungong, CCTV. 

This studio is conceptual, aimed at developing arguments and polemics, but it sets out to do so using the tools of the architect. Dispensing with the prospect of realizing buildings as constructions of matter, we instead maintain that buildings can be constructions of thought, conceptual machines that produce arguments and state positions.

Although we expressly abandon any interest in construction, we nevertheless aim at designing buildings, or rather conceptual structures that look and perform very much like buildings. Our methodological inspiration is the radical architecture of the 1960s—e.g. Superstudio and Archizoom—but today we live in a world that has transformed more thoroughly than these architects could have ever predicted. Thus, we set out to seek other strategies and to look within architecture to seek what intelligence it still has to offer. To this end, this studio examines how architects can respond to evil. Irony, sarcasm, and direct complicity are too simple and are not options.          

Against the dominant forms of architectural education today, this is not a scripting studio, nor a place for unbuildable Hollywood fantasy, nor by any means is it a last refuge of the real or its friend, tired from too many hours surfing the Internet, the hand. Against these outmoded positions, we propose architecture based on rigorous design, architecture as a system of thought that makes abstract knowledge experiential and conceptual thought objective, rigorous and understandable. In setting out to design buildings not diagrams, our goal is to see what the world is telling us, not what we are telling the world.


Exit Utopia: Architectural Provocations 1956-76. New York, NY: Prestel Pub., 2005.
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Meridian. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.
———. The Man without Content. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999.
———. State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem; a Report on the Banality of Evil. New York,: Viking Press, 1963.
Arquilla, John, David F. Ronfeldt, and United States. Dept. of Defense. Office of the Secretary of Defense. Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy. Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2001.
Badiou, Alain. "Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art [Excerpt]."
———. "Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art." Lacanian Ink no. 23 (2004): 100-19.
Bataille, Georges. Literature and Evil. New York ; London: M. Boyars, 1985.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena. London New York: Verso, 1993.
———. The Illusion of the End. Stanford: Stanford Univ Press, 1994.
———. The System of Objects. New York: Verso, 1996.
———. Screened Out. London ; New York: Verso, 2002.
———. The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact. English ed. Oxford ; New York: Berg, 2005.
Baudrillard, Jean, Paul Foss, and Julian Pefanis. The Revenge of the Crystal: Selected Writings on the Modern Object and Its Destiny, 1968-1983. London ; Concord, Mass.: Pluto Press in association with the Power Institute of Fine Arts, University of Sydney, 1990.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Empty Fortress; Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self. New York,: Free Press, 1967.
———. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Knopf, 1976.
Bloom, Howard K. The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History. 1st ed. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984; originally published in French as La Distinction: Critique sociale du jugement. (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1979).
Branzi, Andrea. The Hot House: Italian New Wave Design. 1st MIT Press ed. [Cambridge, Mass.]: MIT Press, 1984.
———. No-Stop City: Archizoom Associati, Librairie De L'architecture Et De La Ville. Orléans: HYX, 2006.
Branzi, Andrea, and Germano Celant. Andrea Branzi: The Complete Works. New York: Rizzoli, 1992.
Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Edited by Wlad Gozich and Jochen Schulte-Sasse, Theory and History of Literature, Volume 4. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, originally published as the second edition of Theorie der Avantgarde, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974, 1980.
Caillois, Roger, Claudine Frank, Camille Naish, and ebrary Inc. "The Edge of Surrealism a Roger Caillois Reader." Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.
Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. 2nd ed. Oxford ; Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
Clark, T. J. Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
Eisenman, Peter, Giuseppe Terragni, and Manfredo Tafuri. Giuseppe Terragni: Transformations, Decompositions, Critiques. New York: Monacelli Press, 2003.
Foster, Hal. The Return of the Real. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd Vintage ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo; Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics. [Rev. ed. New York,: Norton, 1952.
Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. New York,: Liveright, 1970.
Galloway, Alexander R. Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004.
Galloway, Alexander R., and Eugene Thacker. The Exploit: A Theory of Networks, Electronic Mediations V. 21. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
Greene, Robert. The Art of Seduction. New York, N.Y.: Viking, 2001.
Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Harris, Daniel. Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism. 1st ed. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Jarzombek, Mark. On Leon Baptista Alberti: His Literary and Aesthetic Theories. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989.
Koolhaas, Rem, Bruce Mau, Jennifer Sigler, Hans Werlemann, and Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Small, Medium, Large, Extra-Large: Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Rem Koolhaas, and Bruce Mau. New York, N.Y.: Monacelli Press, 1995.
Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Mannoni, Octave. "I Know Well but All the Same." In Perversion and the Social Relation, edited by Molly Anne Rothenberg, Dennis A. Foster and Slavoj Zizek. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.
Milgram, Stanley. "The Perils of Obedience." Harper's Magazine, December 1973, 62-77.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Marion Faber. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. New ed, Oxford World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Douglas Smith. On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic: By Way of Clarification and Supplement to My Last Book, Beyond Good and Evil, Oxford World's Classics. Oxford ;: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Rorty, Amélie. The Many Faces of Evil: Historical Perspectives. London ; New York: Routledge, 2001.
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Sloterdijk, Peter. Critique of Cynical Reason, Theory and History of Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Sumrell, Robert, and Kazys Varnelis. Blue Monday: Stories of Absurd Realities and Natural Philosophies. Barcelona: Actar, 2007.
Varnelis, Kazys. The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles. Barcelona: Actar, 2008.
Weizman, Eyal. Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation. London ; New York: Verso, 2007.
Winnicott, D. W. Playing and Reality. New York,: Basic Books, 1971.
Zimbardo, Philip G. The Cognitive Control of Motivation; the Consequences of Choice and Dissonance. [Glenview, Ill.]: Scott, 1969.
———. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York: Random House, 2008.

Studio presentation video.


Evil studio tumblelogs

Kazys Varnelis

Robert Sumrell

Michael Bakos

Kelsey Campbell-Dollagham

Laura del Pino

Caren Faye

Rajiv Fernandez

Emily Jockel

Eric Lane

Arnaldur (Addi) Schram

Farzam Yazdanseta

Network Culture Course

The purpose of this seminar is to come to an advanced historical understanding of our networked age. We will explore how the network is not merely a technology with social ramifications but rather serves as a cultural dominant connecting changes in society, economy, aesthetics, urbanism, and ideology. As a history of the contemporary, the seminar is organized around a series of topics tracing a genealogy of present-day culture.

Participation: 20%
Each class will consist of a presentation by the instructor on selected themes, followed by an in-depth discussion in seminar. Students are expected to prepare all readings in order to facilitate a discussion in which all students participate. Active participation by all students in each session is required. 
Tumblr: 20%
Each student is expected to maintain a tumblelog on and to post at least twice a week. Beyond mere reblogging of information pertinent to the course, the tumblelog will form a record and commentary upon their research during the semester.
Curatorial Project: 60%
The term project will be a curatorial project, exploring a cultural topic related to the subject matter with a written and visual component.  
Both design and scholarship are integral to the term project. A carefully curated and designed work will be accompanied a 3,500 word essay on the curated material. 
There is one textbook. Kazys Varnelis, ed. Networked Publics (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008).
Other readings will be available separately on-line.


Mizuko Ito, “Introduction,” and Kazys Varnelis, “Conclusion: The Meaning of Network Culture,” Networked Publics, 1-13 and 145-163.
Network Theory
Manuel Castells, “Informationalism, Networks, and the Network Society: A Theoretical Blueprint. In Castells, ed. The Network Society: A Cross-cultural Perspective (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2004), 3-45.
Albert-László Barabási, “Six Degrees of Separation,” “Small Worlds,” and “Hubs and Connectors,” Linked: The New Science of Networks (Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2002), 25-63.
Nicholas Carr, “From the Many to the Few” The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 127-149.
Mark S. Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” American Journal of Sociology 78 (May 1973), 1360-1380.
Duncan J. Watts, “The Connected Age,” Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), 19-42.
Freedom and Control
Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Societies of Control ,” October 59 (Winter 1992), 73-77.
Michel Foucault, “Docile Bodies,” Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 135-156.
Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, “The Californian Ideology,”
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, “Capitalist Sovereignty, Or Administering the Global Society of Control,” Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 325-350.
Alexander R. Galloway, “Physical Media,”Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 29-53.
Postmodernism and History after the End of History
Jean Baudrillard, “The End of the Millennium or the Countdown,” Economy & Society 26 (1997): 447-55.
Jean François Lyotard, “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?” Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1984), xxiii-xxv.
Postfordism and Postmodernism
David Harvey, “Fordism” and “From Fordism to Flexible Accumulation,” in The Condition of Postmodernity, (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1989), 125-172.
Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146 (July/August 1984): 53-92.
Hal Foster, “Postmodernism: A Preface,” in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Townsend, Washington: Bay Press, 1983), ix-xvi.
Place, I. Non-Place to Networked Place
Kazys Varnelis and Anne Friedberg, "Place: The Networking of Public Space," Varnelis, ed. Networked Publics (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008), 15-42.
Marc Augé, “Prologue” and “From Places to Non-Places,” in Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, (London; New York: Verso, 1995), 1-6, 75-115.
Hans Ibelings, “Supermodernism,” Supermodernism (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 1998), 55-102.
Kazys Varnelis, interview with Hans Ibelings, to be posted online.
Ignasi de Sola-Morales Rubió, “Terrain Vague,” Cynthia Davison, ed. Anyplace (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 119-123.
Place, II. Maps and Things

Kazys Varnelis and Marc Tuters, “Beyond Locative Media: Giving Shape to the Internet of Things,” Leonardo 39, No. 4 (2006): 357–363.
Jordan Crandall, “Operational Media,” Ctheory,
Bruno Latour, “On Actor Network Theory: A Few Clarifications,” Soziale Welt 47 (1998): 360-81, translated version,
Culture, I. Networked Publics and Cultural Work
Adrienne Russell, Mizuko Ito, Todd Richmond, and Marc Tuters, “Culture: Media Convergence and Networked Participation,” Networked Publics, 43-76.
Yochai Benkler, “Chapter 1. Introduction: A Moment of Opportunity and Challenge” and “Chapter 4. The Economics of Social Production,” The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 1-28 and 91-127.

Geert Lovink, “Blogging: The Nihilist Impulse,” Eurozine (2007),
Alan Liu, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), excerpts.
Culture, II. Power Laws and Influence
Chris Anderson, “The Long Tail,” Wired, October 2004,
Clay Shirky, “Power Laws, Weblogs and Inequality,” Clay Shirky’s Writings About the Internet.
Bill Wausik, “My Crowd. Or Phase 5: A Report from the Inventor of the Flash Mob,” Harper’s Magazine (March 2006), 56-66.
Selections from Michael J. Weiss, The Clustered World: How We Live, What We Buy, and What it All Means About Who We Are (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1999).
Malcolm Gladwell, “The Coolhunt,” New Yorker (March 17, 1997), 78-88,
Grant McCracken, “Who Killed the Coolhunter?”
Duncan J. Watts and Peter Sheridan Dodd, “Influentials, Networks, and Public Formation,” Journal of Consumer Research (December 2007), 441-458.
François Bar, Walter Baer, Shahram Ghandeharizadeh, and Fernando Ordonez "Infrastructure: Network Neutrality and Network Futures," in Networked Publics, 109-144.
Joseph A .Tainter, “Introduction to Collapse,” The Collapse of Complex Societies, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 1-21.
Tom Vanderbilt, “Data Center Overload,” The New York Times (June 8, 2009),

Nicholas Carr, “World Wide Computer” The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 107-127.
Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2008, 56-63.
Kenneth J. Gergen,“Social Saturation and the Populated Self,” The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 48-80.
Brian Holmes, “The Flexible Personality. For a New Cultural Critique, Transversal,
Warren Neidich, “Resistance is Futile,” Artbrain. Journal of Neuroasthetic Theory 4,
Politics, Urbanism, and Globalization
Saskia Sassen, “On Concentration and Centrality in the Global City,” Paul L. Knox and Peter J. Taylor, eds., World Cities in a World-System (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 63-78.
Saskia Sassen, “Electronic space and power,” Journal of Urban Technology 4 (1997): 1-17.
Stephen Graham, “Communication Grids: Cities and Infrastructure,” in Saskia Sassen, Global Networks. Linked Cities (London: Routledge, 2002), 71-92.

The Immediated Now @ Networked

Netlab Director Kazys Varnelis contributed The Immediated Now. Network Culture and the Poetics of Reality to Networked: A Networked Book on Networked Art, a project produced by and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.

As part of the Netlab's network culture project, this essay reflects on how network culture is not limited to digital technology or to the Internet but rather is a broad sociocultural shift. Much more than under postmodernism, which was still transitional, in network culture both art and everyday life take mediation as a given. The result is that life becomes performance. We live in a culture of exposure, seeking affirmation from the net. The chapter explores the resulting poetics of the real from YouTube to the art gallery. To be clear, the new poetics of reality is different from established models of realism, replacing earlier codes with immediacy, self-exposure, performance, and remix.

One distinctive feature of this book is that it is open for comments, revisions, and translations and you may submit a chapter for consideration by the editors. The CommentPress system, developed at the Institute for the Future of the Book emerged out of discussions between members of the Institute and the Netlab. 

Systems Gone Wild in Volume

Netlab Director Kazys Varnelis reads the Obama Economic Stimulus Plan and the current state of infrastructure nationwide in the context of the research the Netlab undertook for the Infrastructural City. See "Systems Gone Wild: Infrastructure After Modernity" at Volume and "Infrastructure: A Hacker's Manifesto" at the Architect's Newspaper.

Simultaneous Environments in Vodafone


Netlab Director Kazys Varnelis explores alienation and connection as they develop in place, non-place, and networked place in "Simultaneous Environments—Social Connection and New Media," an online magazine article in issue 21 of Vodafone Receiver, "Space is the Place!"
Vodafone Receiver has been under maintenance for a few months so we are posting the article below.
(photograph by Leigha Dennis, Netlab)
Simultaneous Environments. Social Connection and New Media
Kazys Varnelis

As an architectural and urban historian trying to make sense of the transformations in contemporary society, I find that looking back at moments much like our own—but also different—can be a way of gaining perspective.
A little more than a century ago, the relationship of people and place underwent a massive revolution as the telegraph and the transoceanic cables that carried its signals made it possible for information from around the world to be transmitted in near-instant time. Almost immediately, news organizations such as the Associated Press developed to take advantage of these new technologies. Newspaper editors could collect the previous day’s news from across the globe and make it available in the morning paper. The telegraph, and later the telephone allowed diplomatic, military, and corporate decision-making to be centralized. The modern metropolis emerged out of this new centralization as command-and-control districts, such as the American downtown, arose while, under remote control, factories moved out from the urban core to less expensive but more spacious quarters on the city’s periphery.
These were profound changes, and we live in their wake, but we should not underrate the new psychic conditions that accompanied them. Chief among these was alienation. As more and more individuals left their rural homes to seek their fortunes in the city, human ties were fundamentally transformed. One of the first sociologists (a field that arose, of necessity, to study mass behavior), Georg Simmel wrote of these changes in his 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” Faced with “the intensification of nervous stimulation” Simmel observed, the metropolitan individual shut down, becoming blasé or indifferent to the world around him. Simmel’s diagnosis paralleled that of contemporary psychologists, such as George Beard, who in 1869 identified the stresses of urban life as causing kinesthetic neuresthenia. Individuals afflicted with kinesthetic neuresthenia, Beard suggested, would shut down, becoming apathetic, depressed, and withdrawn.
If exhilarating at times, change itself could also be alienating. Of the old Paris, disappearing under Baron Haussmann’s interventions, Charles Baudelaire would write, “the form of a city changes faster, alas, than a mortal’s heart.” Reading of a distant event, one could marvel at the greater degree of connection that technology made possible, but the newfound simultaneity of this early moment of globalization was also deeply unnerving. Electrical impulses had bent space and time irrevocably. All the simultaneous goings-on in the world underscored how one’s own perspective was just one of many. The Enlightenment prospect of coming to a thorough understanding of the world began to seem impossibly distant. New forms of art, such as Cubism, responded to this condition, depicting simultaneity not as something that could be easily grasped, but as confusing, even perverse.
To navigate businesses through these changes, and to maximize the efficiency that technology made possible, managers engineered their employee’s behavior. The punch card, the assembly line, and the automation of the workplace were meant to help businesses, but no matter how successful, these estranged individuals even further. The system was not loved but hated, the corporation seen as a dehumanizing machine.
For the bourgeoisie, at least, the home was the bulwark against the pressures of a changing society. The overstuffed interior demonstrated the family’s ability to command a global market and to demonstrate their taste while serving as an inward-focused world of intimacy, emotion, and meaning, a place in which connections could be nurtured.
But even here, there were pressures. Mass media soon entered the home through the radio and television, devices that replaced the piano and the fireplace as gathering points for the family. Individuals were subsumed into the mass, addressed by a media that perceived its audience as homogeneous, consumers rather than producers.
During the twentieth century such conditions were exacerbated. New, faster forms of travel—on the motorway and by plane—were ever more disconnected from their environment. Automation and scripted procedures reduced human contact. Toward the century’s end, Marc Augé noted that under this condition of “supermodernity,” place was rapidly giving way to “non-place.” Places, that is, spaces made up out of social interactions between people, accumulating in memory to form historical meaning, were disappearing. Instead our lives came to be composed of a relentless procession through spaces of transit. Caught in airport lounges and freeways, but also ATMs, the space in front of the CRT, and supermarkets, we found ourselves increasingly alone, inhabiting non-places. Our alienation was ever more total, a consequence of the empty, meaningless environments that we pass through during our solitary lives.
Or so it seemed. A scant decade later, a second revolution in communications and society is well underway. Everything has changed in the blink of an eye, a century of modernity undone as fast as it came as new technologies support new ways of relating between individuals. Networking is now not just marked by the flow of media from the top down—it is, above all, a vast social phenomenon. This is our world, and it is a radically different place from the condition we once knew as modernity (or postmodernity for that matter).
Just imagine being alone today. There were 18 million mobile phone subscribers worldwide in 1992, when Augé’s book was published. Today there are over 3.3 billion. The United Nations estimates that by year’s end over 50% of the world’s population will own a mobile phone, double the number that has access to a landline. The mobile phone is now the world’s most ubiquitous gadget. Along with this comes a world of constant ambient communications: text messages (the Gartner Group estimates that some 1.9 trillion were sent in 2007), e-mail, and Internet-based data, are now flowing into our hands at a rapid clip. Computers too are increasingly mobile. Laptops are taking over from the fixed, heavy desktop “towers” (the very name evokes isolation!) and the massive CRT screen of the 80s and 90s. Outfitted with Wi-Fi, they allow us to communicate wherever we can get a connection.
Augé’s world of non-places is rapidly disappearing. The airport lounge is always outfitted with a Wi-Fi network, a last-minute place to dash off an email. Far from a place of alienation, the plane is now the business traveler’s last indulgence, an isolated sanctuary in which to catch up with work or to just relax without the threat of receiving a new e-mail to respond to.
One can, to be sure, be more alone than ever. But this happens by choice, when we plug in our iPods. Introduced in October 2001, the iPod was a runaway success worldwide. That it succeeded even though it was released just a month after the 9/11 attacks to a generally depressed consumer mood and an even more dismal economy points to its significance. The iPod allows us to paint the world with an emotional soundscape. Surrounding us with a feeling of intimacy, the iPod creates connection through the familiar sounds it reproduces for us.
Our world is one of connection, not disconnection. Through social networking sites, we reconnect with friends from prior jobs and schools, from days long gone by, and make new ones with little effort. When we see our “Facebook friends,” we feel we know them well. After all, we have been following their every move religiously. As we graduate from school, change jobs or move to new cities, our social networks come with us and our friends stay in touch by voice, by e-mail, and by instant messaging. Photo sharing sites make it possible to see our distant friends change over the years and specialized social networking sites like Delicious or Last.FM allow us to share in their interests. For future generations, the experience of rediscovering long-lost friends will be unfamiliar. Similarly, new friends are all too easy to make. Through social networking sites, we come to regard each other as old friends even before we have met.
If alienation was in part the product of feeling alone in a city or in mass society, misunderstood and unable to find others like oneself, today the Internet makes possible a boundless amount of information and a massive number of dispersed communities brought together around taste cultures. Interested in space history? There’s a place for you. Interested in Hello Kitty? Collecting owl stamps? Like to make military dioramas? How about knitting sexy clothes? Of course there’s a place for you, too. You can freely cultivate your eccentricities in an era where you can meet online with friends who share your desires.
Other communities emerge in virtual spaces that are more three-dimensional than textual. MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft or Everquest provide hours of interaction with players both near and far. To play in a raid with a spouse, a friend in the house next door and a soldier in Iraq is not uncommon at all today. Such online games now far surpass the revenues of even the largest major motion picture. 
But “mass media” has changed as well. Ours is a world of networked publics, in which consumers comment on and remix what they consume. Composed entirely of clips uploaded by individuals, YouTube threatens television networks. Snarky commentary on media is now the norm, much to the broadcasters’ chagrin. Individuals often create their own media—posting on blogs and online venues set up to display their creations, such as photo-sharing sites.
Even when consuming traditional media, consumers react back. In front of the television, they increasingly gravitate toward watching material as they wish. My own young children, for example, have little interest in, or understanding of, traditional television channels, even though they have hundreds of networks, not just three, to choose from. For them, watching a show “On Demand” is far superior to joining a show in mid-stream.
The simultaneity of the 1900s was a simultaneity that the inhabitants of that time could really only observe. They could read about what happened in China in the newspaper, but weren’t, generally speaking, involved. Once they put the newspaper down, the simultaneity ceased. Today’s simultaneity is pervasive, active not passive. While mom sets the dinner table, she checks her Blackberry for messages from work and the kids text their friends, or even each other—to get a giggle at dad’s expense. We live in a state of simultaneous environments. We are here and there, in multiple places at once. For many of us, this is our condition almost all the time.
The intimacy of the family is now replaced by the telecocoon. Coined by anthropologist Ichiyo Habuchi, a “telecocoon” refers to the steady, ambient conversation over SMS that keeps us together even when we are apart. Providing intimacy at a distance, the telecocoon provides the shared feeling of what Mizuko Ito calls “co-presence.” Like most of these new media, telecocoons foster feelings of connectedness, but at what cost? 
Instead of alienation and disconnection, today’s networked disorders center around addiction or inability to disconnect. The ease and rewards of the virtual world make it all too easy to retreat into it. Simmel suggested that we can only maintain so many connections with others. If you have 1,000 Facebook friends, how many real friends do you have? With online social networking making it easier to keep up casual virtual connections over real friendships, the future of human connection is unclear. Recent research by sociologists suggests that in the United States the number of confidants that people feel they can talk to about serious matters has dwindled from three to two in the space of one decade. We may have more connections, but are we any closer to each other?
As we drill down deep into the Long Tail, we focus on our own particular perversities and find comfort in those people most like us. We appreciate those who are mirrors of ourselves and recoil from those unlike us (ZOMG INCOMIN TROLL!!). If the public sphere of the nineteenth century was predicated on debate and deliberation, today we seem more polarized than ever. Reaching out to people unlike ourselves is almost painfully difficult. 
Compounding this, our own sense of self seems to have changed. If the nineteenth century individual felt overloaded by the impulses around them and shut down, we dissipate. As SMS, IM, e-mail, and push services such as Twitter compel our attention so that we don’t miss anything, we find it hard to focus. The Blackberry becomes the “Crackberry.” Continuous partial attention replaces our ability to concentrate on one task. Schoolchildren and scholars alike ignore libraries in favor of the Internet and surface grazing becomes more important than research in depth. That all this favors a sedentary lifestyle in front of the screen is also a concern as rising obesity, especially among
children, threatens our health.
Caught up in the benefits of all this, we also expose ourselves. Our notion of public and private is undone. If a few years ago, critics of social networking sites suggested that young people posting pictures of themselves at parties (or having sex!) might have a hard time getting jobs, today that idea seems as quaint as suggesting that a presidential candidate who had once smoked marijuana would not be viable. If anything, the record of a collective generation’s drunken college years humanizes them. The real concern, however, should be that we have collectively given up our right to privacy. Corporations and governments now know mind-boggling amounts of information about us. Our Web surfing habits, search and purchasing histories, even our physical locations are all tracked. The surveillance described by George Orwell in 1984 seems laughably outdated. Twenty years later, we live in a world in which privacy is a thing of the past. That no one has used that information to nefarious purposes is little comfort. We have given it up without second thought. What does this say about our sense of self?
During the next decade networked technologies will become more mobile and more pervasive. As the Internet grows into an “Internet of Things,” we will find ourselves surrounded by smart appliances. This threatens to push us back into a world of disconnection if the universalist qualities of the Web are undone. We can see early signs of this in the rise of the Internet-enabled smartphone. Here, the ubiquitous and universal Web browser has proven to be too cumbersome to be a primary interface. Instead, downloadable applications—sometimes for free, sometimes not—offer self-contained, often highly-designed experiences. On my iPhone, for example, I have apps for Facebook, YouTube, Google Maps, Google Talk, the New York Times, Bank of America, Delicious and so on. Similarly, on the desktop, the rise of web applications such as Google Docs has spurred the development of Single Site Browsers (SSBs). This seemingly innocent development suggests that the massive, networked public sphere constituted by the Web may yet splinter.
The world of micro-publics also threatens place as well. With access to more information than ever, we can find a community perfectly tailored to our political, social, and cultural interests. I confess that I am perfectly happy in my suburban town on the outskirts of the New York metropolitan region where people like me live, seeking very liberal suburban life. We all attend our July 4th parade but we give the most applause to the anti-Iraq-war marchers. Right-wingers are few and far between in these parts. There is a dark side to this. In “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of America is Tearing Us Apart,” journalist Bill Bishop uncovered that Americans are increasingly sorting themselves into homogeneous communities. As people worldwide gravitate to the places where others most like themselves live, face-to-face debate and dissent evaporate.
Network culture is as new to us today as modernity was to the people who lived a century ago. To prognosticate more than I already have is highly dangerous. But it is also necessary. If we can, as yet, do little to project the vast changes in society that will take place in the coming years, we need to watch warily, acting as techno-skeptics one day, techno-enthusiasts the other so as to ensure a world of greater meaning, democracy, and real social meaning and individuality.  


Rapid Response: Collapse!

The Network Architecture Lab presents Collapse!, part of the Studio-X Rapid Response series. 

Collapse! explores the spatial consequences of the "new" economy—the panic of 2008 as well as the last two decades, and the last two years—at a variety of scales: the NYSE trading room to Manhattan, the city to the suburbs, the United States to the world.

Netlab Director Kazys Varnelis lead a discussion with Daniel Beunza, Assistant Professor, Management Division, Columbia Business School and Micah Fink, Emmy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker. 

Tuesday, October 28, 6:30 pm
Studio-X, 180 Varick Street, Suite 1610

1 train to Houston Street

networked publics published

Networked Publics, edited by Netlab Director Kazys Varnelis has been published by MIT Press and is now widely available in bookstores and online. It may be purchased at Amazon here.

Book Cover


The premise of Networked Publics is that digital media and network technologies are now part of everyday life. The Internet has become the backbone of communication, commerce, and media; the ubiquitous mobile phone connects us with others as it removes us from any stable sense of location. Networked Publics examines the ways that the social and cultural shifts created by these technologies have transformed our relationships to (and definitions of) place, culture, politics, and infrastructure.

Four chapters—each by an interdisciplinary team of scholars using collaborative software—provide a synoptic overview along with illustrative case studies. The chapter on place describes how digital networks enable us to be present in physical and networked places simultaneously (on the phone while on the road; on the Web while at a café)—often at the expense of non-digital commitments. The chapter on culture explores the growth of amateur-produced and -remixed content online and the impact of these practices on the music, anime, advertising, and news industries. The chapter on politics examines the new networked modes of bottom-up political expression and mobilization, and the difficulty in channeling online political discourse into productive political deliberation. And finally, the chapter on infrastructure notes the tension between openness and control in the flow of information, as seen in the current controversy over net neutrality. An introduction by anthropologist Mizuko Ito and a conclusion by Netlab Director Kazys Varnelis frame the chapters, giving overviews of the radical nature of these transformations.

Online content including a research blog and lecture videos may be found at

Some comments about the book.

"Networked Publics is a lucid, timely, and broadly interdisciplinary look at the most important technological and social change of our time: the sudden wiring and unwiring of the planet into a broadband network, with communication devices in the pockets of a significant proportion of the world's population. There is very little that is more important, more discussed, and less widely understood than the meaning of the emerging technosocial networks that are adopting digital media for a wide range of social, cultural, political, and economic ends. Bringing together an interdisciplinary team of anthropologists, economists, educators, designers, political scientists, computer scientists, legal and policy experts—the Networked Publics group—was the only way to try to capture the meaning of a phenomenon that is interdisciplinary by its nature. The team project blog was a beacon of clear thinking while the project was in progress, and the book is a sound foundation for debates about what networked publics mean, how they can be encouraged, how they should be regulated, how to protect against their dangerous aspects."
Howard Rheingold, author of Smartbombs: The Next Social Revolution

"Networked Publics is the place to start for anyone seeking to understand the symbiotic changes in new media and society today. Essential reading for both specialists and general readers."
Lev Manovich, author of The Language of New Media and Soft Cinema

"The Networked Publics group brought together smart people across a range of disciplinary and theoretical perspectives to engage in a serious and sustained conversation about the current state and future directions of the new media landscape. The questions they ask are ones we need to consider as we learn how to live, work, collaborate, create, and engage as citizens in our new networked society."
Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide