At the invitation of Maros Krivy I am presenting a keynote lecture at the conference Architecture, Natures and Data: The Politics of Environments, Tallinn, Estonia, 20-22 April, 2017. Abstract below:
Environments of Indifference: Architecture and Algorithmic Governmentality
If the environment is now defined in terms of data, logistics and computation, as an automated ‘algorithmic governmentality’ that encircles and enfolds us, then how might we understand its relationship to architecture? For much of the twentieth century architecture was progressively conceived as a medium through which the subject could be reconnected with its natural environment. For László Moholy-Nagy modernist architecture, with its spatial fluidity, its transparent and reflective surfaces, effects a new union with nature. For Buckminster Fuller, Reyner Banham and others, new materials and technologies enable architecture, and its users, to escape the literal and metaphorical weight of traditional building. Architecture’s new immanence to the environment is conceived in terms of liberation, facilitating nomadic and ecologically modelled lifestyles. The environment, understood as a complex of cybernetic and natural systems, is figured as opening on to new freedoms.
An almost diametrically opposed conception appears in more contemporary characterisations of the environment within other fields. For Michel Foucault it is power itself that now operates environmentally, succeeding sovereign and disciplinary regimes in which its locus could be more clearly identified. The environment is a field of discourses and practices played out according to the obscure rules of a neoliberal truth game. Antoinette Rouvroy’s concept of an ‘algorithmic governmentality’ further develops Foucault’s conception of power along these lines. Governance through automation, logistics and big data constitutes a ‘perceptual regime’ that sets the terms under which the ‘physical world and its inhabitants’ are rendered visible and intelligible. Whereas the subject’s experience of the environment remains centre stage within architectural discourse, it is marginal to the concerns of this regime. Algorithmic governmentality is largely indifferent to the subject. It does not need to tame behaviour or produce docile beings. In fact, she argues, it ‘simply ignores embodied individuals’ since the only ‘subject’ its operations require is a ‘statistical body’. Algorithmic governmentality is, then, fundamentally calculative, indifferent to belief, and concerned only with the remote management of the behaviour of subjects for whom its operational procedures remain opaque. Its perceptual regime forecloses critique and shuts down the virtual horizons of the subject, containing it within a permanent condition of informatic processing.
Here, I will explore the part played by architecture within the perceptual regime described by Rouvroy. Focusing in particular on contemporary transit systems, I will explore the ways in which their swarm-modelled design and planning is premised on precisely the kind of indifferent, pre-conscious and behaviouristic conception of the subject to which Rouvroy refers in her critique. Turning then to the architectural treatment of these spaces, I will analyse how, through their cladding, styling and ornament, these work to acculturate us to the indifference to which we are now subject, to the closing down of horizons, to the acceptance of our marginalisation within systems whose logic must necessarily, it is made to appear, remain opaque to our own cognitive capacities.