HOW IS THE DIGITAL TRANSFORMING OUR DOMESTIC ENVIRONMENT?
A transformation has been happening for a long time, where private and public, interior and exterior, have become categories that are not easily separated. The digital has accelerated the dissolution or blurriness of these categories. There are new reconfigurations of space. For instance, our interior spaces, like those we are in now, have become a public space and continuously circulate elsewhere through social media and communication platforms. These circulating interiors affect our ideas of privacy or domesticity and the social, material, and political structures around them.
The digital has also collapsed the space of leisure and labor. The work of feminist thinkers has repeatedly brought attention to the domestic space as a space of labor – paid and unpaid care and domestic work. The measures to contain the pandemic have intensified the forms of labor performed at and from home, and it has immense implications. The organization of time and space that we assume as a given is a consequence of the Industrial Revolution: it organized time in shifts; it designed the working week and the weekend; defined the factory as a space for work, and the domestic and leisure spaces where working bodies recover before getting exhausted – and thus unusable for the capitalist system. These spatial conditions have been reshuffled. The more significant consequences are to be seen. Yet, the undifferentiation of the space of labor and leisure will probably define new categories that we don’t have names for yet. If we try to name them with existing terms, we will not be able to grasp the full extent of the transformation we are in. Going back to the notion and condition of circulating interiors: we share our daily life –previously defined as domestic or private – with others and with strangers due to social media. The front door to the home or the bedroom or bathroom door is no longer the primary threshold defining privacy. Let’s analyze different typologies of the house across territories and cultures. We see how they materialize thresholds between public and private, between the realm of the stranger, the guest, and the host. Many people comfortably invite an undefined viewer to experience where they are, how they live, and what they eat via social media or platforms such as Airbnb. The concept of the interior as a place where our privacy starts and ends or where our public and private life begins and ends is no longer applicable in those examples, and more critically, architecture is no longer a defining system for structuring such conditions. That to me, is also interesting.
WHAT ROLE DOES ARCHITECTURE PLAY CONCERNING THIS TRANSFORMATION?
Some might suggest that traditional architectural elements like the wall, the floor, the ceiling will become a canvas to project and perform other spaces, alternative dimensions of life. Architecture could be enhanced, augmented, and dissolved by the digital. That is at the core of what Facebook is envisioning when they talk about the metaverse: architecture functions as a neutral canvas (instead of an active agent) for other worlds/futures to come. And that, to me, is terrifying.
It’s a very passive and pacifying understanding of space. It is not that I am not interested in the forms of spatial practice, intelligence, and dissent that develop with and within the digital space. I worry that the world (whether physical, digital, or otherwise) is increasingly owned and controlled by a tiny group of individuals and corporations. The transformations that Facebook and other companies sell via the notion of ‘metaverse’ make us more fragile and increasingly blind to their effects. While using physical surroundings as a canvas and adding infinite layers of possibilities through the digital realm, we should be aware of the forces, interests, bodies, data sets, infrastructures, and economies that make that experience possible and their political and ecological implications. Those concerned with how built architecture perpetuates extraction, exploitation, and environmental devastation, know that the possibility of continuously producing new spaces and worlds through the digital is not less damaging. How much energy is needed for those worlds to exist? Just think about the extensive infrastructure of cables, servers, data centers, their emissions, energy consumption, and impact of the minerals’ extraction needed for their components. I am not interested in creating endless versions of alternative worlds if they actually accelerate the destruction of the only one we all share. Constructing digital worlds demands the same level of ethical, social, and ecological responsibility as when constructing a building or an entire city.
This is the reality we are in, not a distant future. Therefore, the question is how we can make something relevant out of it. Could these enhanced experiences of space and time help humans see, hear, feel, empathize, and care for other beings and contribute to their well-being and the planet?
DO YOU THINK THIS CHANGES THE POSITION OF THE ARCHITECT?
Architects and architecture schools are exploring such ideas. Yet, most practicing architects are not part of this conversation, nor are they expected to be by ‘the market’. While conducting my research into data centers, I have been talking with data center owners about the possible role of architects in their business. They only consider working with architects when they need a beautiful façade that will make the building more appealing, easily blending with its surroundings. Engineers generally design these spaces. Yet, architects could intervene in those processes in a meaningful way through radical forms of imagination. An architect can indeed design a facade and also a spatial and urban system through which the heat emissions from the data center are used as energy for nearby housing blocks. Or could reconsider the typology of the data center (most of the time a box) and imagine decentralized forms of data storage and ownership. Perhaps architects have not sufficiently engaged in these conversations.
It could also be that the schools of architecture do not emphasize addressing the transformations we are discussing here.
SO, WE NEED TO ENGAGE WITH THE PHYSICALITY OF THE DIGITAL…
What is remarkable is that we imagine the digital, in essence, is immaterial. But the digital manifests materially. The cloud is not a floating vaporous entity; it is made of the architecture of millions of cables, servers, spaces, and infrastructures that consume energy.
It’s beautiful that we imagine all of that material world as a cloud. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for what a reality we want to achieve. For instance, there are now many experiments happening in data storage that lately become an obsession of mine. If data could be stored in the DNA of plants, a forest could be the largest repository of information, one that will also be able to write its own history. This is something I’m curious and excited about.
THEN WE UNDERSTAND THAT THE DIGITAL SPACE IS NOT NEUTRAL. HOW CAN WE SHAPE THE DIGITAL TO BE FAIRER OR MORE COLLECTIVE?
It is indeed not neutral. A few individuals, corporations, and governments have access and control of most of this world: digital and physical. In the digital, we are too often put in the position of ‘users’. I get uncomfortable with the term ‘user’ – mobilized in computing and by thinkers such as Benjamin Bratton, who are highly knowledgeable about the digital space.
I understand where it comes from, but I don’t particularly appreciate being identified as a user. The term indicates a very particular and, in my opinion, problematic position within the digital space and the world. There should be other ways of imagining our relationship with the digital. Instead of a platform we long in and ‘use’ as individuals, we could collectively shape and own that space.
Many people are investigating forms of decentralization an collectivization of the digital space and its infrastructures. For example, the artist Jonas Staal is leading the project Collectivize Facebook. This collective action lawsuit aims to recognize Facebook as a public domain that should be owned and controlled by its users. This project allows us to imagine how the ownership model of corporations and companies such as Facebook could be transformed into a transnational cooperative under shared ownership and governance of the people.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF VIRTUAL REALITY AS A LIBERATING SPACE?
If we perceive the virtual worlds to be equally important as the one that we occupy with our physical bodies, and we give the same importance to our digital and physical self, then the digital space and, in particular, VR could allow each of us to become a multitude of bodies and identities. We could perform and practice these identities and bodily practices in the space at the intersection between the virtual and our immediate physical surroundings. We could be in a continuous state of becoming instead of inhabiting a fixed category. Perhaps that is the space we could explore and test other forms of existing, inhabiting, and acting in the world that otherwise remain impossibilities because of our physical appearance, location, background, origin, and countless categories in which we have been trapped. It could be a space to embody and embrace other ways of being, relating, and organizing social relations. So I think that’s an exciting possibility. Yet, we must be aware that digital existence is not without conflict. Racism, sexism, harassment, oppression, extortion, and violence are part of it.
WHAT IS YOUR HOPE OR VISION FOR THIS MORE COLLECTIVIZED DIGITAL SPACE?
Okay, let’s try to be optimistic! I hope that there will be a deeper understanding and access to the digital realm in the next ten years. Instead of a service which we pay for, the digital will be an intrinsic part of our lives, meaning that we take active responsibility in shaping it (as we do with our lives, experiences, or homes). I also hope
for specific technologies or forms of intelligence that will allow the many to engage with the world, whether digital or physical, in a non-extractive or -exploitative way. We need to re-think the forms of labor and forms of extraction that make architecture (digital and built) possible. How can we reorient our practices, so our actions don’t harm the planet and its inhabitants? I hope for a more conscious form of engagement, which will make us reconsider habits both in the digital and the physical space. I don’t want to put the responsibility on the individual, yet individual contribution is fundamental. Are we aware of the impact of our desire for connectivity, immediacy, constant availability, endless supply, and growth? Are we aware of the energy required? And the emissions result of it?
We need a different paradigm for the digital not associated with an idea of immediacy. It comes with a high cost. I hope that we are able, as architects and designers, to conceptualize another world in which waiting is okay. A World where we wait because the server operates with solar energy and needs to be recharged; where we do not buy something online expecting it to arrive the next day as we understand this leads to innumerable forms of extraction and exploitation of bodies and entire environments. We need to conceptualize worlds that are not based on the promise of immediacy, smoothness, and privilege, but on radical notions of care for the others and for the world we share.