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    X-TOPIA : A Digital World

    By natcheng
    Sep 14, '20 1:31 PM EST

    Following the recent virtual Burning Man festival entitled Multiverse, here are some thoughts and digital collages generated by my Office regarding X-TOPIA : A Digital World. 

    Channelling the spirit of Archizoom, Superstudio and 70’s OMA through a smartphone device, the ten vignettes illustrate current trends and future speculations. X-TOPIA is a cautionary tale of how technology is changing the way we live, work & play, for better or for worse.

    X-TOPIA : A Digital World

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    Throughout 20th and 21st century popular culture, we encounter visions and prophecies of the techno-dystopian future far more frequently than techno-utopias. Our presentiment of the future has inspired countless novels, soundtracks, films, and video games exploring the darker side of our technological advancement; dehumanization, dependence, authoritarian control, and inequality. In a techno-dystopia, cyberspace is under active threat from corporate and political interests, and the fundamental aspects of humanity (society, biology and culture) are under siege. Outside of fictional narratives, current events point to the deployment of emerging technologies as powerful tools of surveillance and repression in Authoritarian States.

    Fewer fictional or historic examples of techno-utopia exist in our collective consciousness, but the notion of a transformative fourth industrial revolution comes to mind, led by disruptive technologies with the ability to reshape societies, economies, and architecture. While Artificial Intelligence (AI), Biotechnology, the Internet of Things (IofT), Virtual Reality (VR), Blockchain, Big Data, and 3D Printing have the potential to vastly improve our built environment and way of life, the conditions of techno-utopia can not exist in a vacuum. In this brave new world, governments worldwide will need to partner with academic and industry leaders to establish robust regulatory frameworks to oversee these powerful new technologies. The lack of adequate policy controls could lead to a Darwinian free for all or worse yet, abuse, spiraling into a techno-dystopia.

    Accepting that it is possible to advance society and the built environment through design, let us devise a model of what a techno-utopia might look like in contrast to a techno-dystopia. The diagrams below model some of the characteristics associated with techno-dystopian and techno-utopian futures, while speculating about X, the unique condition that occurs when the two opposite and competing forces intersect. 

    DYSTOPIA vs. UTOPIA

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    Traditionally, the concepts of dystopia and utopia exist separately, in dialectical opposition. However, there is an inherent tension between the two. Our current relationship with technology is fraught with ambiguity, and only the rear view mirror of history will reveal the ultimate fate of the human Anthropocene. Without knowing if the propagation of emergent technology will result in a techno-dystopia or techno-utopia, perhaps a constructive middle ground can be embraced, instead of subscribing to either extreme? For a lack of a more suitable name, let’s label the intersection, and present condition of the human Anthropocene,  X-TOPIA.

    X-TOPIA

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    COLLAGE SERIES I. to X. Referencing the outsize influence and unchecked market dominance of “The Big 5”[1], this 10 part collage series can be read simultaneously as a factual and fictional behavioral model of X-TOPIA, depicting the utopian visions of Big Tech, alongside the dystopian effects of rapid and unbridled technological expansion. 

    [1] Manjoo, Farhad. “Tech’s ‘Frightful 5’ Will Dominate Digital Life for Foreseeable Future.” The New York Times, 20 Jan. 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/21/technology/techs-frightful-5-will-dominate-digital-life-for-foreseeable-future.html . Accessed May 20, 2020.

    I. INVENTIONI. INVENTION

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    A transformative 21st Century invention, the smartphone (2007)[1] accelerated digital global connectedness and created an irreversible impact on our everyday interactions and behaviors. Within a 3”x6” mobile internet enabled device, civic, commercial, institutional, familial, social, and fantasy realms are accessible and interconnected. Without having to leave one’s domicile, far flung worlds and disparate populations converge, online relationships and collaborations transpire, social economies emerge, and consumerist and carnal desires are satisfied. Despite the myriad of conveniences available at our fingertips, the digital world is highly transactional and exerts a toll on our privacy. With or without our explicit consent, troves of valuable user data are collected, resulting in a historic and unprecedented blurring of the public and private domains.

    [1] Fallows, James. “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel.” The Atlantic, November 2013 Issue   https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/11/innovations-list/309536/ . Accessed June 1, 2020.    

    II. MISSIONII. MISSION

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    Since the inception of Silicon Valley, Tech founders have been guided by visions of Utopia but the dream of forming a perfect, transparent community devoid of all self-interest remains unattainable. Nevertheless, a real or perceived sense of Mission, characterized by the slogan “Make the World a Better Place”, is central to the worker indoctrination and retention techniques employed by Big Tech.

    Parallels exist between life in the privileged Big Tech bubble and the dreamlike journey of The Wizard of Oz, which is widely believed to be a Capitalist fable about the path to enlightenment, and the pursuit of riches.[1] A warning that ‘things are not what they seem’, the sunny and benign expedition of Dorothy and companions insidiously morphs into a stormy and treacherous existential journey along the Yellow Brick Road. Similarly, behind the transparent surface and seemingly perfect façade of Big Tech, veiled intentions and hidden agendas prevail.

    [1] Ebiri, Bilge. “7 Theories of What The Wizard of Oz Is Really About.” New York Magazine, 7 Mar. 2013, https://www.vulture.com/2013/03/wizard-of-oz-theories-gold-standard-feminist-religion-jung.html . Accessed June 8, 2020.

    III. DECENTRALIZATIONIII. DECENTRALIZATION

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    The engineering and procurement of smartphone components is made possible by decentralization, which replaces the model of 20th century Industrial Capitalism centered on a single geographic nucleus such as Detroit, the Motor City. Post-Fordist decentralized zones of the 21st century consist of specialized markets that rely on flexible global networks for sourcing, manufacturing, logistics, and distribution. While decentralization has optimized global enterprise by dissolving geographic boundaries, there is a societal toll. In the developed world today, individual wage earners not only face increasing pressure to work at a speed dictated by robots & computers; they also face deterritorialization, fragmentation of labor, isolation, wage insecurity, and foreign competition.

    Decentralization also applies to block chain technology, or borderless exchanges that permit the trading of cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin. While user autonomy, discretion, peer to peer focus, elimination of fees, accessibility, and mobile payments are the revolutionary hallmarks of a decentralized currency, those same qualities make it susceptible to theft, and under the radar exploitation.

    IV. FACTORIESIV. FACTORIES

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    Smartphone manufacturing and distribution is made possible by factories of the digital age, where the democratic, utopian, Post-War vision of Mies van de Rohe’s Chicago Convention Center (1954)[1] is turned on its head. Instead of emancipating the populace within a colossal column-free assembly hall, these large span structures can maximize worker capacity on the factory floor or click farm with ruthless efficiency. While e-commerce, mobile commerce and social media have freed up considerable leisure time for the consumer + influencer classes, legions of shift workers toil around the clock under harsh and often inhumane labor conditions to fulfill an endless stream of global orders (or clicks) with no end on the horizon. 

    [1] Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Convention Hall Project, Chicago, Illinois (Preliminary version: interior perspective), 1954, Museum of Modern Art, New York. 

    V. STATELESSNESS V. STATELESSNESS

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    Behind the scenes, smartphone companies are controlled and powered by various stateless entities and groups operating in interstitial zones where the regular laws of society do not apply. At one extreme, Big Tech utilizes offshore entities to minimize taxes and shelter profits, while Tech founders and libertarians explore the international seas (and Outer space) in hundred-million dollar vessels, un-moored to a specific legal jurisdiction. Another peripatetic group consists of foreign tech workers who are vital to Silicon Valley’s output. This modern day nomadic tribe consists of transient coders and engineers who lead precarious year-to-year existences without a social safety net. Revealing further rifts in the social fabric, an alarmingly high rate of homelessness has persisted in the Bay Area since the end of the Vietnam War. [1] Despite the financial, technological, and moral triumphs of Big Tech, no individual or Tech behemoth has been able to successfully address or alleviate the humanitarian and homeless crisis in their own backyard. 

    [1] Cowan, Jill. “San Francisco’s Homeless Population Is Much Bigger Than Thought, City Data Suggests.” The New York Times, 19 Nov. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/19/us/san-francisco-homeless-count.html?auth=login-email&login=email . Accessed 19 Jun. 2020.

    VI. CYBERCRIMEVI. CYBERCRIME

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    Smartphones and the data contained within them can be subpoenaed for evidence in criminal investigations. In a virtual Panopticon[1], the tools of technology can be effectively deployed by law enforcement to fight crime, or help combat a pandemic. Tethered to our smartphones, we live in different types of Surveillance States. Authoritarian governments are increasingly reliant on data analytics, facial recognition and AI to analyze mobile data for aberrant or illegal activity, while social networks with unclear and questionable motives scrape data from billions of users. 

    As technology erodes the capacity for gatekeepers to effectively channel information and influence public opinion, techno-utopia risks descending into the worst case scenario for the internet: driven by tribalism, fake news, propaganda, and fear-mongering.[2] Due to unclear protocol and regulation for monitoring cyberspace, disinformation campaigns on social media by domestic and foreign operatives continue to fuel social division, putting democracy at risk.

    [1] McMullan, Thomas. “What does the panopticon mean in the age of digital surveillance?.” The Guardian, 23 July 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jul/23/panopticon-digital-surveillance-jeremy-bentham . Accessed 23 May 2020.

    [2] Marantz, Andrew. “The Dark Side of Techno-Utopianism.” The New Yorker, 20 Sep. 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/30/the-dark-side-of-techno-utopianism . Accessed 23 May 2020.

    VII. REPOSITORIESVII. REPOSITORIES

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    Due to an uptick in global smartphone use and online activity, an increasing number of data centers, or repositories, are being constructed to meet the growing demand for cloud data and network storage. Currently situated on remote, sparsely populated land connected to the electrical grid, these hangar-like structures occupy enormous carbon footprints and require large cooling towers due to the intense heat generated by the equipment. In the 21st century, big data is quickly surpassing oil as the world’s most valuable commodity. 

    Taking a cue from the model of 20th century maritime oil refineries, solar powered data centers of the future will float underwater, occupying a minimal building footprint and utilizing the cooling effects of the sea. A counterpoint to the utilitarian function of the underwater data repository, a virtual reality amusement park floats above sea level. Visitors, adorned with a ‘new look’ VR headset (a hybridization of a sombrero, sports visor, and reflective sunglasses) arrive alone, or in small groups to participate in socially distanced digital games and open air recreation.

    VIII. RESEARCH / A.I.VII. RESEARCH/ A.I.

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    The smartphone can be treated like a bodily extension or bionic extremity. In addition to the 5 senses (Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, and Touch), sensory impressions of the world and bodily rhythms can be modulated and recorded by digital interfaces on smartphones and wearable devices. Within future building infrastructures, architects and designers can explore the seamless integration of biometric technology, sensory controls, and neural-digital interfaces. 

    Inspired by the model of Cedric Price’s Visionary Fun Palace (1964)[1], a new typology emerges in the form of a hermetically sealed Megaplex and Social Condenser which houses research, health, wellness, and cultural functions under a single large span roof. A conveyor belt facilitates circulation from one programmatic zone to another, and visitors re-emerge from the Megaplex physically, mentally and psychically transformed, an upgraded version of their former selves.

    [1] Price, Cedric. Fun Palace for Joan Littlewood Project, Stratford East, London, England (Perspective),1959-1961, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    IX. CULTUREIX. CULTURE

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    The smartphone screen is a 21st century platform for the cyclical dialectic between exhibitionism and spectatorship. High culture, pop-culture and ‘everything in between’ commingle and compete for attention on our digital displays. Due to the proliferation of celebrity feeds, social media, live chat, gaming and streaming channels, we live in a narcissistic ADHD digital “Society of the Spectacle,” [1] where 15 seconds of fame is the new social currency. 

    Following the footsteps of Andy Warhol and David Hockney, we strive to produce multiple iterations of the perfectly seductive square composition. Personal and transient moments are digitally captured, posted, and shared on social media to solicit online commentary, fame and notoriety, or monetary reward. Just as Hockney labored for weeks to paint a moment that only lasted two seconds in A Bigger Splash (1967)[2], internet Influencers meticulously stage photoshoots and rehearse dance choreography to convey the illusion of online spontaneity.

    [1] Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle, translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith (1994) [1967] (New York: Zone Books).

    [2] Hockney, David. A Bigger Splash,1967, Tate Modern, London.

    X. EXCESS / RESETX. EXCESS / RESET

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    The smartphone displays a live stream from the reinstated Burning Man Festival in the Black Rock Desert. At the festival dubbed “The Great Reset”, there is a paradigm shift as the proletariat reclaim their rightful voice and position within the Tech hierarchy. Tech titans ingest a dose of the post-crisis reality after having played a critical yet controversial role in the pandemic. 


    To safeguard the planet for future generations, the first carbon neutral festival is inaugurated, featuring alternative means of transportation, solar powered holographic projections, and organic 3D printed structures made from compostable filament that provide shelter and shade, while dispensing mist, nutrients, and a sprinkling of hallucinogens. A triumvirate of humans, robots, and nature work in tandem to achieve sustainable construction in the desert, and novel architectural forms are shaped through their contact with the wind and air. At the close of the Festival, a mirage of 1970’s hippies appears and time stands still, stirring a sense of nostalgia and a collective yearning for a return to simpler times – analog, unplugged, untethered, and in tune with nature.

    …....  TO BE CONTINUED

    Project Credits: Natalie S.W. Cheng, Founder, ALTA-NYC (author, concept + artwork), Brad Isnard (research / artwork), Brent Solomon (research / artwork), Christopher Arcella (technical production / video animation), Chris Zabriskie (video soundtrack)

    Image + Video rights: Copyright, ALTA-NYC, Natalie S.W. Cheng. Apart from the existing vimeo / online presence, this digital Collage Project has not been previously published. Comments or inquiries regarding long-form text, exhibition ideas or formats are welcome.


    A DIGITAL WORLD : animated collage, 2:40 minutes

     
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