Human Nature : Machine Ecology
This represents the present condition of my thoughts on this subject; it is by no means ordered / final / coherent even, but it does begin to form the basis for something more in depth and useful in the consideration of the future of our cities and the role of architects within that. Further reading on this is still ongoing and therefore this post might well get edited as I amend my thoughts and ideas along the way…
(minor update : 24/02/2012)
“We live in a machine culture; in our daily lives, we are more and more surrounded by and interfaced with machines. We are no longer, like our ancestors, simply supplied by machines; we live in and through them. From our workplaces to our errands about town to our leisure time at home, human experience is to an unprecedented extent the experience of being interfaced with the machine, of imbibing its logic, of being surrounded by it and seeking it out.” Phoebe Sengers
Cars, household appliance, healthcare, telecommunications, long distance travel, surveillance, farming, entertainment, gardening, construction, demolition, security, access, sport, lighting, play, leisure, industry, business, banking, trade, death & funerals, music, war, food, time, heating, cooling, writing, disabilities, pregnancy & birth, shopping, education, religion etc. (and of course digging…)
All of these things that form our cultures, societies and our present human ecology exist with, because of and through machines. Some of these aspects of our lives have gradually developed from human/nature interaction, whilst others have been facilitated through the development of machines and technology, throughout human history as a direct response to the perception of human need or growth. We, as a species, are defined as ‘higher’ than other animals through our ability to make tools and equipment that facilitates our engagement with a subject. This higher intelligence has enabled us to gradually redraw our ecology, taking us from nature reliant to being machine reliant; fundamentally changing our systems of survival, growth, trade, national boundaries, war and peace, etc.
This shift in our ecology is clearly visible – it is not just in the urban centers that demonstrate a tangible machine reliance, a trip to the local farm will reveal a huge array of machination that enables the production of vast amounts of raw food product and land cultivation. The city could be considered the epicenter of our machine ecology; it’s bias toward efficiency, growth and commerce has meant that the systems of city occupation are entrenched within the use of machines. From traveling around a city to accessing your home, to entering and exiting a shop or office or even communicating with friends and colleagues – all these systems are utterly reliant upon machines to ensure they operate correctly and maintain the city’s ecology of control and conformity. As a race we broadly appear to thrive upon conformity, schedules and systems of control, therefore it is no surprise that machines with their binary position would have become such a favorite creation.
Cities are the focal point of developed society, they are the location of choice for higher education, technology, commerce and politics and as a result are the most densely populated sectors of human inhabitation. They demonstrate some of the greatest disparity between the rich and poor, educated and uneducated, skilled and unskilled, such disparity would not seem to be becoming of a ‘machine’ like state, yet cities operate like a machine; made up of many systems, networks and smaller machines in sync to maintain an equilibrium enabling them to continue to grow and develop. Today’s Architects of the city have the task of knitting their buildings and their interventions with the built environment into a machine ecology, one that operates a a multitude of levels within our society and culture, our political systems and economic framework. These levels are all touched and influenced by the increasing technological advance of the machine ecology itself, as our machine serfs gradually become more and more capable of complex functions they will take on new roles within our homes, cities & built environment.
“Am I a man or machine? There is no ambiguity in the traditional relationship between man and machine: the worker is always, in a way, a stranger to the machine he operates, and alienated by it. But at least he retains the precious state of alienated man. The new technologies, with their machines, new images and interactive screen, do not alienate me. Rather, they form an integrated circuit with me.” J. Baudrillard, “Xerox and Infinity”
Le Corbusier’s statement regarding the house as a ‘machine for living’ is much quoted and as such has begun to become synonymous – rightly or wrongly – as a nexus point between buildings and machines. The machine is a tool, it is an intervention between man and his ecology and as such Architecture through buildings fundamentally changes the ecological landscape, not just from a ‘nature’ or even visible perspective but from a social and cultural standing. The way we build, the way we live changes the way we occupy our ecology and changes the way we interact with it. Today’s buildings are smart, they incorporate a machine nature that enables them to self manage, self sustain and in some instances request change from their human occupants. This building intelligence is is another step away from nature, despite the fact that we are more and more aware of the necessity of understanding and maintaining the natural world for our own existence. The human condition is a duality; a recognition of our reliance upon nature whilst making every effort to create a new nature.
It is this determination to succeed above all others, to compete, to win, that has driven us to create, design, build and utilise an ever increasing genus of machines. From earliest known human history we have seen tools created to take control over the natural world around us, from tools came basic systems and structures and following those the culminations of tools and systems which formed machines in their earliest guise. Even today we are still creating new machines to help us take control of the natural environment, to maintain authority and exercise our continued adjustment of the systems of nature, the systems of the evolved ecology that was once nature and is now machine. Architects can therefore be seen as one particular profession at the forefront of humanity, pushing boundaries of control, approaching new levels of understanding, interaction and application of the natural world as well as machines. As a role player in society, culture and the survival of the race as a whole, the architect must understand and apply these boundaries, levels and interactive situations and recognise how to apply them in our built environment which in itself represents a pinnacle in the whole mountain range of human achievement above and beyond all other life upon the Earth.
So what is the next boundary or level of architecture? What interaction with the natural world will we consider next to be necessary for the growth and increased comfort & ease of living? The built environment is presently being proliferated with buildings that look to draw energy from nature, others that utilise sustainable or recycled materials whilst all new buildings have to maintain a high level of energy usage performance. Our unbridled interdependence with machines in this present age will undoubtedly form the springboard of the next phase of our ecological evolution. Our machines are becoming more capable of complex functions, they can communicate with each other already, many share common languages of binary and programming code enabling them to write and re-write complex analysis of each other’s systems. With Scientists often perporting to be on the cusp of achieving functional Artificial Intelligence and Hollywood creating terrifying visions of what the effects of AI would have upon humanity there is a chasm of mixed emotions, fears and potential delights that could be wrought upon us.
Artificial (Architecture) Intelligence? Architecture’s Artificial Intelligence? (The play on words alone could again form a whole other paper or discussion.) Where does the Architect stand amidst the scene of impending beauty or chaos? In the movie trilogy of The Matrix the position of the architect is depicted as a program (with all it’s expected sense of having been programmed), written by the Machines to create the world of The Matrix as a system to control humanity and utilise them as a source of power, “fate it would seem, is not without a sense of irony.” If present day Architects do not work to integrate our machine ecology into our architecture at a more embryonic level then we will be left with structures inhabited by machines rather than structural machines that we inhabit. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the notion of creating AI, however the notion that we should create a race of AI machines is perhaps one that would send a shiver of concern up and down the spines of many.
The Human race likes to be in control, it is the reason that we have subjugated nature thus far, the reason we have developed a genus of machines to work for us, the reason architects produce inert buildings. The notion of ‘Living Architecture‘ as proposed by Dr Rachel Armstrong using Protocells to produce active architecture that grows and evolves around us, whilst being a highly attractive proposition, might well be a difficult system to manage, maintain and interrupt. In this way an active ‘living’ building might well act outside of our control, perhaps even in a way that is not beneficial to it’s environment or inhabitants. Even if it utilises a ‘natural‘ process in it’s behaviour the effects and integration into the building might not mean that it will ultimately be good and healthy. This lack of present understanding or tangibility does not mean it should be ignored, this is a field of incredible potential and one that could well hold the key for providing truly sustainable cities for the future. It is possible however that growing architecture in this way could have a very long timeframe, not only initially whilst it is researched, developed and mobilised but also in it’s effectiveness.
Our present toolbox houses vast amounts of technology that we understand, that is controllable and that is tested and beneficial. It would however appear that what we lack is the foresight to integrate so much of it into our day to day buildings. We see one off museums or stadiums, university buildings and schools that showcase one element of this technology at our disposal; a green roof, a rainwater collection and recycling system, photo-voltaic and other light activated technologies etc. The careful, considered and controlled combination of these technologies already in existence could be brought together to form machinic component architecture that forms (a) benevolent machine(s) as well as a building. When buildings are designed to give back more than they take out then they become carbon negative, they begin to rebuild nature even whilst they occupy it.
Architects must stop producing static inert buildings and begin compiling sustainable structures with benevolent purpose aside of shelter, influence and aesthetics. It has only been in the last 50-100 years that in our ‘developed’ architecture we have begun to use our walls and roofs as a blanket as well as the building shell. Walls, floors, ceilings do not just have to form structure within which we place our machines for use, a floor that incorporates piezo-electric technology also acts as an energy generator, a wall formed of concrete with a reinforced metal mesh within it can also act as a RF/MW shield, cladding systems that collect rainwater and filter it for use, or mitigate against unwanted sound, or harness solar energy, or all of the above at once! The possibilities for engaging architecture as a machine component is enormous, through this technological approach architecture can become the confluence between nature and machine – the nexus, the catalyst for a new practice.
As a machine reliant race we should look towards the next jump in our machinic development. As architects we hold a critical position in our societies, balancing both the ever increasing urbanity of our culture and the need to protect, partner with and even improve our natural environment. We have always used machines to assist our needs and aspirations, yet architecture is only just beginning to recognise the value of looking at it’s product in the same way as an engineer or designer might look at a machine. We create buildings and fill them with machines to live with, when what we should be doing is creating machines that we can live in. I consider Biomimicratic architecture to be the next stage of the evolution of our machinic culture, embracing the technology that we have already developed and incorporating it into machines for living and working in will ensure that our 21st century cities are not static and inert but active agents in the replenishment and prioritisation of our natural environment.
Architectural Design, Ed. Neil Spiller & Rachel Armstrong – Protocell Architecture, March/April 2011
Armstrong, Rachel – Living Architecture : How sythetic Biology can remake our cities and reshape our lives.
Baudrillard, Jean – The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, trans. James Benedict. New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, 1993
Le Corbusier – Towards a new Architecture
Dunne, Anthony – Herzian Tales, The MIT Press, 2005.
Sengers, Pheobe – Practices for Machine Culture: A Case Study of Integrating Cultural Theory and Artificial Intelligence : http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~phoebe/work/papers/surfaces99/sengers.practices-machine-culture.html
Shepheard, Paul – Artificial Love : A story of Machines and Architecture, MIT Press, 2003
(and of course all manner of post-apocalyptic, science fiction & robot related movies had to be watched to ‘research’ these ideas and addle my brain even further…)