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My back pages: Ten chapters on ¡Tchkung! (1994)

A piece republished on my old v-2 site in 2003 and creakingly old even then, having originally been written for a magazine called neo my ex-wife and I published in Seattle circa 1994. It is soooooo Nineties in its framings and formal concerns, but kinda fun nevertheless. Enjoy!

1

Returning slowly to ordinary consciousness as you stagger out onto the sidewalk at quarter to two in the morning, you find yourself with a pair of gonging eardrums, hands covered in the fluid seeping from torn blisters. The high-pitched scream in your ears is the predictable aftermath of a show; the blisters were suffered (you can only surmise) while hammering on a 55-gallon oil drum with a crowbar.

It’s the blisters – and the stench of cordite and adrenaline and fear that still hovers in your nostrils – that testify to the fact that what you’ve just seen is anything but the average rock’n’roll show. You’ve survived your first encounter with ¡Tchkung!

2

Recipe for a ¡Tchkung! show: a little May 1968 guerrilla street theater, a few touches from Survival Research Laboratories, a surprising amount from the contemporary French circus, maybe a pinch of Leni Riefenstahl – and not very much at all from the hallowed iconographic menu of rock.

Oh, sure, there’s some people playing musical instruments up on a stage, and there’s a pretty light show flickering over them. But that’s about where the resemblance ends. ¡Tchkung! uses a variety of techniques to break down the wall between performer and audience, sideshow pyrotechnicians and roving self-piercers among them. There’s no identifiable boundary between observation and participation – here’s where the comparison to SRL comes in: you can either choose to join in the chaos or back away to a putatively safe distance. The experience almost manages to revivify the use-worn phrase “in your face.”

3

As your mind clears, you review the events of the evening. You can barely remember how you felt just a few hours ago, so total has been your immersion in the mood of the show.

You do remember getting into the opening acts, a bagpipe ensemble and a Taiko drumming group, and being disappointed that more people in the crowd didn’t seem to be paying attention. The Taiko drummers in particular impressed you with their sense of barely-contained energies, and you wanted them to go on longer. But that desire was forgotten as ¡Tchkung! took the stage, amid the martial clang of found percussion and a sudden cacophony of voices and instruments.

How many were up there, anyway? Six, seven? They launched immediately into a grinding dirge, and everything else was swept away.

4

A torchlight procession wends its way down from the stage, around the club and back again; drums and sheet metal are tossed into the audience, along with tools and rough pieces of rebar for use as strikers. The action is acentric: there’s stuff going on up there, yeah, but there’s a knot of people twenty feet away watching a man eat fire. Right above you, a woman is shoving a needle through her lip with an expression of calm concentration made more exquisite by the total clamor on all sides. And where you’d expect a mosh pit to be, people who have never met each other – some in full bodypaint – are locking arms and dancing in a circle like medieval peasants at Beltane.

You’re encouraged to participate in this laying on of hands.

5

It occurs to me that I haven’t said much about the music. In this, I join a growing line of reviewers, who have tended to talk about the “barrage” of “damage” and “ritual”, but not about tunes. So far, music has been surprisingly secondary to any discussion of ¡Tchkung!, whether you’re talking about their live presentation or their self-titled debut CD (Belltown Records). It’s not because the music is bad – very much the contrary – but because the experience seems to be so much larger than just the songs.

They collude in giving this impression, too. The CD insert gives none of the standard information about the personnel of the band, the instruments or samples deployed, the lyrics. Instead, what you find upon opening the booklet is a veritable smorgasbord of left-antiauthoritarian thought, with elements recognizably derived from the IWW, the Situationists, the Diggers and Luddites, French theory circa Baudrillard…

Some of it doesn’t hang together very well: this is one of the only places I’ve ever seen ecofeminist and pagan thought juxtaposed with the macho deep ecology of Dave Foreman. And what would Kropotkin make of Terence McKenna? I appreciate ¡Tchkung!’s desire to turn their audience on to the wellsprings of their thought – but you do get the feeling that most of the other verbiage would be unnecessary if the music did its job.

6

OK, then: the music itself. If you’ve just gotta have a label, you might put ¡Tchkung! in the political wing of the percussive, assaultive school of sound known as “industrial.” This would make them classmates of the Lower East Side’s Missing Foundation and the Bay Area’s Sharkbait. There also seems to be a little bit of the anti-statism and anti-Christianity of the seminal, and annoying, British anarchist band Crass. What all of these bands share musically despite their many differences is a deep appreciation of harshly rhythmic noise, found percussion, and the use of slogans (all too often shouted from bullhorns) as lyrics.

You needn’t consider ¡Tchkung! to be hemmed in by this description, because they do have the makings of a sound that would far transcend the limitations of the genre. Where other bands of this genre dig themselves a rut of anger and monotony, ¡Tchkung!’s music has elements that compel genuine feeling and memory, whether the haunting, soulful keening of an extraordinary female vocalist, the weird Dreamtime warblings of a didgeridoo, or the chain-gang cadences of a worker’s blues. Where they’ve fallen down so far is in the successful integration of these elements into a focused whole, and in fact their CD will make you think you’re listening to a compilation album.

And listening to ¡Tchkung! at home is difficult anyway. Our society is structured in such a way that, for most people, it’s next to impossible to devote time to music exclusively, and so you wind up listening most while taking care of other tasks. We listen while driving, washing the dishes, making love – but how often do you just sit back in an otherwise silent environment and savor music? Getting the most out of a song like the otherworldly invocation “Io Lilith,” requires just such attention.

Then there’s the undeniable fact that most of these cuts evolved as soundtracks to live performance art – participatory and unscripted, but performance nonetheless. They can seem inchoate and incomplete without their complement of live activity. That they still succeed as well as they do is evidence that there’s some talent involved, but it is a sore point. They need to figure out how to have the performance of the music itself be the show.

I have seen bands that have mastered this. One I particularly remember launched into a song about a homeless Vietnam veteran living and dying on Venice Beach. All I really remember of the evening is this song, with its visceral thrum of bass and drums beneath the parallel wailing of sax and singer. The sound conveyed with absolute precision and fidelity an oppressive sense of narrowing options and failing hopes — and somehow found an affirmation of possibility at the bottom of the well. This is something that the unadorned three-piece wasn’t necessarily capable of; it’s my belief that it was the room they made for the swooping, lacerating sax that took them over the edge into transcendence.

That’s what I’m looking for. I’m not suggesting that it can be found simply by grafting a sax or a second drum kit onto the rock unit; neither do I believe that it can be forced by the wholesale, disrespectful adaptation of instrumentation or time signatures from other cultures. I think it comes in the fusion, the cross-fertilization, the creative recombination of elements.

We’re not limited anymore, in either the tactics or tools with which we approach making music. Punk rock famously urged us to Do It Ourselves. Hip-hop gave us the ideology of the sample; minimalism allowed us to derive structure from repetition of a few simple elements. Industrial taught us to explore the textures of noise and “world music” brought the planet’s entire history and heritage of musical experience to our immediate awareness. And digital technology means that whether it’s Ella Fitzgerald, Erik Satie, the throat-singers of Tuva, or a squealing circular saw we’re learning from, the lessons are as accessible as the nearest disc player.

So rise the new hybrid forms, born of new experiences: Parisian hip-hop, Gregorian ambient, Nipponese grindcore. Township jive touches down in Queens and Brazilian kids find out that speedmetal works especially well in Portuguese. It may not be exactly what McLuhan meant by the “global village,” but it’s as close as we’re likely to know.

I expect amazing things.

7

The musicians send forth waves of sound to break and crash over the audience; the response is immediate, sending bodies surging about like a throng of urchin dervishes. Sweatslick flesh presses in on you from every side, beyond individuality or gender. There’s an erotic charge in the air here, but also a palpable thanatos, a will to death and destruction that pulls on you like an undertow. Over the pounding beat, one of the singers is giving voice to a full, almost Old Testament wailing, a shriek of hopeless grief that recalls Diamanda Galas. It’s obviously a very intense and meaningful moment for her; the intensity comes across but much of her meaning is lost to you.

The air is thick with pheromones. The contrasts of the moment are dizzying: the singer’s grief, the exhilaration of losing yourself to the bodies on either side of you, the feral sexuality and the sense of loss.

8

They’re out on tour as I write, these offspring of Neubauten and Noam Chomsky, playing their harsh sounds out there in the American Night. I try to imagine them in Idaho, on this first night of the State Fair, mounting their full onslaught for what could be a room of fifteen, and fail.

I just can’t picture ritual percussion and onstage piercing playing real well in Boise. But maybe the world is changing faster than I think. According to a band member — the band speaks collectively or not at all — “the ranting and raving, they could take or leave, but they’ll stay through it just to hear the music.” I have to admit I’m surprised; after all, what will a nation used to Pantera and Snoop Doggy Dogg make of ¡Tchkung!, a band whose live sound could fairly be described as a discourse on the 1934 General Strike fused to the squeal of sawblade on aluminum?

But they’re not having too tough of a time getting their point across to audiences, and at that there is something appealingly homespun about them, something wholesome and (they’d hate it) deeply American. It’s a spirit somewhere between the Boston Tea Party and Andy Hardy shouting, “Hey, kids! Let’s put on a show!” None of which probably sounds terribly inviting, but I mean it as a compliment.

9

Avowedly anti-music-business, ¡Tchkung! claims “we’re doing something wrong if we get famous.” At the same time, they face the central dilemma of our mediated age — one never successfully negotiated by veterans of the punk rock moment such as Fugazi or Bad Religion: what happens when a subculture reaches critical mass?

If you believe in your message, naturally you want it to reach as many minds as you can. The way to those minds is through the gate of mass communications, and the gatekeeper is the big bad Media Biz. Because even such radically decentered communications tools as the Internet or the ‘zine scene speak to their own elites: a map of signals traffic along either of these networks would burn brightly over Hoboken, Berkeley and Georgetown, while leaving Jersey City, East Oakland or Anacostia dark.

The sad fact is that it’s the people who already have “access to tools and information” and power who know how to find relatively obscure artifacts like a ¡Tchkung! CD. Only the mass media have the ability to introject information into every fissure and crevice of our society. It’s a race and class and even cultural dilemma that ¡Tchkung! is sure to face head-on if they’re serious about getting their message across to the people who would benefit the most from a little self-empowerment.

10

The noise goes on and on and ON and you just want it to come to a climax or at least some sort of closure. After a while, you become aware that the stage is mostly empty, that the musicians are packing up their gear, and you’re not really sure at what point the show “ended.” The hammering din hasn’t let up in the least, and there’s still a good number of people locked into ecstatic dance.

Some perverse instinct compels you to wait it out, to see just how long it takes the crowd to ramp down from its ecstatic high. And so you wait and watch for things to end. But this show doesn’t; it just tapers off into guttering flames and one last screech of feedback, as dazed survivors reel across a dancefloor littered with “industrial” debris and shrapnel.

Postscript

Seeing ¡Tchkung! left me feeling painfully ambivalent. On the one hand, here’s this band with a ton of energy, an awesome array of tactics to keep the audience involved, and (in the abstract, at least) politics I have little argument with. Those qualities have all proved vanishingly hard to come by in contemporary music. But what they have in sincerity, commitment, and intensity, they lack in focus and yes, discipline.

Because sometimes less really is more. Or more to the point: sometimes the energy that can sustain a show for three and a half hours at a given level could be used in more structured ways to produce a more vivid total effect in half that time. I know part of ¡Tchkung!’s intent is for each show to provide a door for the influx of chaos into the world — to create a temporary autonomous zone in which Anything Could Happen. But as it is, the Anything all too easily becomes boredom. And I resented it; the whole experience had raised a particular sort of energy in me — and then done nothing with it.

What did I want them to do with that energy? What might I have done with it myself? Alternately, what might I have done if only it was asked of me in that interval before the showbuzz wore off? Part of the problem here is that ¡Tchkung! is playing with fire, in more ways than the merely literal. The piercing, the firebreathing, the dervish-dancing, the relentless rhythms: these are all shamanic techniques for the alteration of consciousness, and there is no doubt but that they work. In their original contexts, they are all used by people undertaking specific initiatory journeys, when guided by others steeped in the traditions of their use. Of course, none of these conditions obtains at a ¡Tchkung! show. What happens when you put several hundred people into a suggestible state, in an environment filled with extraordinarily powerful signs of no fixed meaning?

¡Tchkung! obviously hopes that people will be empowered by the experience, moved to take back their lives from the entanglement of economic, social, religious, and political strictures that now binds us all. I share this hope, but I’m not so sanguine about the chances of such a mass transformation occurring spontaneously as the result of a three-hour carnival of noise. I could be wrong: for all I know, that’s the only way it could happen. But I’d bet against it.

¡Tchkung! is a band I like enough to come down hard on. They are a long way from where they need to be, I think, maybe even from where they want to be. And it sometimes seems — for an entity that presents itself as a musical group — that their music is entirely beside the point. But if they fall short on these counts it’s only because they have set their sights far higher than other acts you’ll see on the very same stages. They don’t seem particularly interested in providing an entertainment experience to an audience of passive consumers, which in itself is unusual for a band. They do seem interested in provoking the spontaneous creation of a community of desire, using any technique at hand. ¡Tchkung! wants you to determine the shape and direction of your own life. Despite some doubts about their tactics, there can be no higher goal, whether for a book, a speech, a magazine…or a rock band.

The quantified self

Sometime in the early 1980s — I can’t have been any older than 14 — I tagged along with my father on a trip he made to New York to commission some work from the artist Agnes Denes. You shouldn’t get the idea that my father was any sort of Medici, or generally has taste quite as refined as his choice of Denes suggests; that I know of, this was the only time he ever did anything along these lines, and certainly there weren’t a whole lot of hard-drinking, Lacan-reading conceptualists in our family life.

Agnes immediately struck me as one of those force-of-nature types, and her studio was everything you’d expect and hope, a cabinet of curiosities furnished entirely with the everted contents of her own mind. The things I saw that day, little shardy glimpses of SoHo and the daily lifestyle of a SoHo artist circa 1983, remain indelible in my mind.

There was one piece of hers in particular I’ll never forget, at least in its general outlines. It was an open glass bowl, containing what to all appearances was a mound of incinerated human remains, bone chunks and all. And the placard mounted alongside the bowl read something like this:

These are the earthly remains of Firstname Lastname, who lived 71 years, 10 months, 13 days, 3 hours, 26 minutes and 17 seconds. In his lifetime he experienced 2,521,490,585 heartbeats and breathed 605,491,268 times. He urinated 39,280 times, for a total output volume of 48,872 liters, and experienced 24,718 bowel movements. In the course of his life he married twice, and enjoyed 3,668 sex acts with these two wives and 16 other partners (fourteen women and two men); including 12,463 acts of masturbation, mostly to completion, these resulted in a total of 15,531 orgasms.

I’m pretty sure about most of that stuff being there. (I’m absolutely certain of the word “orgasm,” because I’d never seen it outside of a verrrry furtively thumbed book before, and there it was on the wall in screaming 48-point Helvetica.)

What I’m less sure about is whether or not I’ve embroidered into the memory a final statistic, which was a figure representing the weight of the ashes. Anyway, that’s what I think of every time I hear someone talk about “the quantified self.”

Power

Last night, after ten years of being together and coming on eight years of marriage, Nurri asked me to make explicit my definition of power, as the topic had been coming up quite a bit in our recent conversations.

I thought it was a great question, especially as the subject is going to crop up again in the near future, in my writing and my daily work. Fortunately for me, I’d been thinking about the question for so long that I was able to pop the following out, just about word for word:

To me, power is…
– an ability expressed within an immanent grid of relations superimposed on the phenomenal world, from which it’s effectively impossible to escape;
– the ability to shape flows of matter, energy and information through that grid of relations, and most particularly through bodies situated in space and time (including one’s own);
– the ability to determine outcomes where such bodies are concerned;
– this ability consciously recognized and understood.

By this definition, power can be exerted locally or globally, at microscale or macro-.

In the negative mode, the mode with which we’re all of us most familiar, its prerogatives are enjoyed, to varying degrees, by a schoolyard bully, a rapist, a meeting of technical experts to determine the level to which a brand of cigarettes will be mentholated, the owner of a media conglomerate…the Wannsee Conference.

But power can also be expressed in more beneficial forms: a change in diet, a choice relating to one’s habits of media consumption, the decision to share a link, the decision to bind one’s life with another, even bring a life into the world. Power can take the form of environmental regulations, or the movement of a community toward self-determination.

Power can be resisted. To varying degrees, depending on where in time and space your body happens to be situated, you can claim power over yourself. Power can be shared, extended, used for transformational or liberatory purposes.

There are limits to power: situational, juridical, neurological, endocrine, historical, ethical, practical…

You could probably fairly describe my life project as the reclamation of power over my own body and the effort to help others achieve similar reclamations, to which I would add the renunciation of directly coercive power over another’s body, except in certain strictly delimited circumstances. Beyond that lies the renunciation of indirectly exploitative power over others, and given the particular grid of relations in which I find myself, that’s a much harder thing to achieve.

For those who care about intellectual pedigree, and the process by way of which I arrived at a framing like this: my take owes a little bit to actor-network theory, some to Hardt and Negri, some to Richard Dawkins (!), Gayatri Spivak, David Harvey and Naomi Klein, and a great deal to Foucault. Deleuze & Guattari: inevitably. Earlyish exposure to anarchism, feminism and Buddhism colors just about everything I think. In all cases, I’m sure, we’re talking about my own lazy, mistaken or shallow misreadings of source material, and in one or two, my deliberate twisting of an emphasis to suit my own needs.

Coming up next: some specific, concrete examples of some ways I see power working, on my body and those of others.

Flowers for cyberpunk

A few years ago, when I was speaking at my first gig in France, a friend introduced me as “a genuine cyberpunk.” I don’t mind telling you I was a little taken aback: (a), Chairman Bruce deserves the tag more than I ever will, or could, and (b) I’ve always thought of that word as a descriptor of literary genre, not of people. Maybe it’s different in Europe.

What I will not deny, though, is that the genre which appropriately does bear that name was probably the major formative influence of my adolescence, and my discovery of it while it yet hovered more or less on the margins of popular culture one of only two junctures in my life that I truly felt myself to be close to the epicenter of a Moment. Finding stories like “New Rose Hotel” in my sister’s copies of Omni — devouring them with by flashlight, under my bed, as if they were some species of pornography — then stumbling onto that first Ace Special Edition of Neuromancer at sixteen: these were inflections I experienced physically.

I mean it. Reading these stories consistently and reliably generated in me a precise somatic sensation. It felt like this: like someone had clamped strong hands on my shoulders, forcefully pivoted me forty-five degrees to the left, then planted a solid kick in my ass. My heart would start to hammer. I’d have to get up, go out and do something, anything, just to burn off energy and ease my way down from maximum jouissance. Every new, outré detail — the assassin with a monomolecular whip secreted in a false thumbtip, the smackhead dolphin abandoned by the government that had recruited him, the death-by-pheromoned-cloud-of-smothering-butterflies — set off a fresh detonation of glee.

There were more intellectual pleasures, too. One of the things cyberpunk was relatively good at was suggesting the political economy of the future, the institutional structure that would characterize the way we lived there. Genre authors delighted in attending to details like “Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority” and the “Mare Tranquillitatis People’s Circumlunar Zaibatsu,” and I as a reader delighted in their cleverness and perspicacity. My imagination could churn all day on everything so densely implied by a line like: “His right bicep was tattooed with a geodesic balloon above crossed lightning bolts and bore the legend SUNSPARK 15, UTAH.”

It worked (and I’m only something like the eighteen millionth person to have pointed this out) because it was still recognizably an exaggeration for effect, the Reagan/Thatcher/Nakasone Eighties in a funhouse mirror. No wonder contemporary sf, by contrast, tends to leave me so cold: it’s hard to top the details of a world that’s seen all of this come to pass.

I thought of this the other day when I passed an artifact that seemed to sum up most of cyberpunk’s formal concerns. It was nothing more than a graffiti’d shipping container piled in a maintenance yard, but it:

- represented the fruit of a deeply digitized military-logistic material culture;
– still bore the marks of its native China;
– and, layered atop them, bore the blazons of street identity.

It struck me as occupying an amazing position in material-semantic possibility space, the polemical-made-real. Running past it was something like listening to a digital file of Brazilian speedmetal, or having a woman you meet at a party nonchalantly introducing you to her wife, in that everyday life seemed to have more or less effortlessly remolded itself around tropes which once, and not so very long ago, dripped with futurity.

And a world filled with such objects is in some way almost beyond commentary, or critique. Maybe this is why William Gibson’s own last few books, delightful as they remain — the brand-new Zero History being the most recent case in point — read as yarns told about people we (quite literally) already know, capering through places, scenes and contexts we know all too well. It’s competently constructed entertainment, resonant enough of our moment, and is amusing as something to play the roman-à-clef game with. But it’s not (and cannot be?) revelatory. I’m having a hard time imagining anyone having their ass kicked by Zero History the way mine was by Neuromancer.

As for the earlier work, I can’t for the life of me imagine what a contemporary reader confronting it for the first time would make of it. Any possibility of getting a frisson or lift off of that material would seem to be undermined by the fact that so much of it was first rendered into genre cliché, in the hands of much less capable writers, and then had the bad manners to come true. (Believe me, there was not a single hip thing about the Giger-themed bar in Shirokanedai, even before it went out of business.)

More broadly, I’m having trouble even coming up with any cultural artifact capable of generating that kind of shock’n’awe rewrite of the world. For me, for anyone. And that’s too bad.

Apologies and explanations [longish, too emo for most]

Many thanks to those of you who have written to note, comment on or bemoan the lack of posting hereabouts lately. I really do appreciate your support. It’s true, as more than a few of you have guessed, that Helsinki winter has sapped me of most of the energy I’d need to maintain a regular posting schedule, but there are deeper issues keeping me from having much to say as well, and maybe you ought to have an account of some of that.

I’ve basically given up trying to get any work done on the book for the time being. It’s been a struggle enough to find the time and space to think and write these last two years, and it’s by now abundantly clear to me that it was a particularly titanic and hubristic bit of foolery to even think of finishing this project while I remained at Nokia. The end of my contract looms on the horizon, though, just a few months out, and trust me when I say I’m very much looking forward to devoting myself fully to something that is fully my own.

If you’ve been waiting patiently for this book to appear — and your support and forbearance throughout this period have redefined “patience” for me — fear not, there is a completion path and plan that stretches across the second half of 2010. I also, frankly, feel (and believe you’ll eventually agree) that the book will be better for not having appeared in 2008; these two years have seen so many real-life case studies and stories to tell crop up in the general field of urban informatics that the book can only be richer for delivering an account of them.

Such energy as I do have, I’m currently devoting to Do projects, where there is a gratifyingly proportionate relationship between the effort I invest and the reward realized. Our Tokyo Blues continues to do well, but if you’re not familiar with it I’d love it if you’d have a look and consider ordering a copy or two.

On the subject of books, it’s also mildly interesting to me that, while sales of Everyware have apparently found entirely new regions of toilet to circle, paradoxically enough the book seems only to be growing in influence and even finding the broader readership I’d always wanted for it. What makes me ambivalent about this otherwise happy circumstance is that, after all, I wrote the thing in 2005 — and five years is a lifetime when you’re talking about technology. I can’t imagine that anyone picking up this book for the first time in 2010 is going to find it anything but quaint, but as usual, I couldn’t possibly be more delighted that people continue to find it of use.

The situation with regard to speaking is, I’m afraid, less felicitous. I’m coming off a run of mediocre-to-outright-bad talks, capped by a jetlagged muddle before a room of very, very bright people at last month’s Microsoft Social Computing Summit in New York. There have been exceptions — the hour or so that I spent in conversation with Usman Haque at Hackney’s SPACE at the tail-end of November was just electric, profoundly gratifying — but for the most part I don’t feel like audiences are getting very much value out of what I’m trying to bring to the table.

One of the harder things about public speaking for me has always been this notion I have that, for any given audience, you’re always carrying around some insight that would blow their minds — but you don’t know which of the ten thousand notions floating around your skull it actually is. And your task, if you want to leave the people who have entrusted you with their time and attention with something of worth, is to somehow divine that one thing, and sort it from the banalities, shallow takes and things they’ve heard before, better stated by someone else.

Simply put, I don’t think I’ve been doing a very good job of this my last three, four, five times out, and I think the smartest thing I can do by way of response is cut way back on my travel and speaking commitments and see if that improves my sense of what people might find valuable.

I’m trying to carve out more space, in general, for long-form reading, contemplation and synthesis, and this means stepping away from the fast-twitch clock speed of contemporary media. This goes specifically to my use of Twitter and Dopplr and Foursquare and whatnot: it’s not such a good idea to use these to get in touch with me, as I’m not paying attention, and especially don’t be hurt if you’ve tried to connect with me on one service or another and haven’t heard anything back.

2.
And this points toward the primary thing that’s been bothering me, the thing which has been keeping me from wanting to be particularly visible at the moment (or for any future easily foreseeable from here). My feelings about it are complicated, will be a little difficult to articulate correctly, and will quite probably rub some of you the wrong way even if I do get the expression of it righter than not.

This is the crux of it: I’ve come to feel that, by virtue of my public participation, a whole lot of people I don’t know expect and (what’s more and worse) feel like they have the right to demand a certain level of performance from me. They – and for some people reading this, I really mean “you” – insist on a certain frequency of posting, a certain quality of cleverness or perspicacity, a certain threshold of seriousness. I believe this because I hear about it in spades if I fail on any count to deliver on your expectations.

I get asked to advise people on their academic and career choices, point them at resources, introduce them to (what they seem to believe are) my influential friends, write forewords (for free), speak at events (for free), give what amounts to free consulting. In most of these cases the person asking seems to think I have huge draughts of time and energy available to me, coupled with magickal access to some source of insight they don’t. And for the last several years — because all of this would be very gratifying for anyone, and I’m acutely aware of what a privilege it is to be in any such position — I responded to each and every such request with a “yes,” answered each and every mail, took time to ensure that each and every query was engaged politely, promptly, and as fully as possible.

What I want to say to you now is that whether or not anyone else on Earth is capable of measuring up to these expectations, I am not.

I’m exhausted. Drained and spent. Distracted from the things I want to achieve in the precious little time any of us have in this life. (I can’t even begin to imagine what anybody who’s genuinely a public person in any real sense of those words experiences.) And yes, I acknowledge that this is in large measure my own fault. I suppose it’s what anybody asks for when they post things in the open, for all & sundry to read and link and respond to…but I have to tell you it’s the furthest thing from anything I have in mind when I hit “publish.”

See, in my heart of hearts, when I write something here, I’m intending it for a very small group of friends and colleagues — like maybe ten people. This is both because these people constitute my imagined peer community, and because it’s virtually impossible for me to conceive of anyone else caring in the slightest what I have to say. The main reason I bother is because, for whatever reason, I believe that inherent in the act of consuming other people’s intellectual or artistic output is the responsibility to replenish the well by producing your own…but you don’t ever actually expect anybody to notice that you’re doing so, or trying to. So it’s always a little surprising for me when someone who is not part of that tiny crowd goes and links something I’ve posted here before a broader audience, with the implication that it’s worth that audience’s time in considering and engaging.

OK, fair enough. It’s a public Internet: all adults understand this basic fact. If you’re not prepared to have your words travel widely, why bother blogging at all? All stipulated. Even more so, in this case, because I’m venting about the perceived limitations of a particular community of practice, and what should I expect but that the people who feel themselves taken to task might want to respond?

What I dislike is the very premise that what I posted even constitutes a “challenge” that’s worth addressing in any such way. The reason people keep blogs — let me be more straightforward: the reason I keep a blog — is to express opinions. Precisely to not, always, have to be consistent or sensible or bound by a duty to the truth. To not, always, have to be responsible. To not, always, answer to the same standards I’d expect of (say) a writer for the New York Times or the Guardian. To be full of shit, if I feel like it. And, what’s more (and this goes to the bozo who whined about my ostensible tone of “world-weary superiority”), to be full of shit in whatever style I feel like adopting.

As it happens, I do stand by what I wrote in the linked post. But in reading the responses to it on the IxDA site, it’s obvious that most of the people there found my take on matters transparently and profoundly wrong — plainly contradicted by the facts on the ground, which some of them proceed to enumerate. And here’s the mystery to me: if what I wrote is so obviously fatuous, why even bother addressing it at all? The unspoken premise is, I suppose, flattering, but it’s also dangerous and wrong: that my opinion somehow has more weight than Random Internet Person’s, and therefore demands a response.

Let me be the very first person to assure you that it has not and does not. I simply don’t believe in “thought leaders,” gurus, or “experts”; I think you should be very suspicious of anyone who allows themselves to be referred to as such, and triply so of anyone who refers to themselves as such. This is not, at all, to say that I don’t believe in, acknowledge and sincerely admire expertise…but in the end, opinion, no matter how well-informed, is just that and should never, ever be taken for anything more.

For me personally, this resistance to the notion of “thought leadership” is one of the many healthy values I picked up from punk rock, where the kid on the stage was just another kid in the crowd ten minutes ago, and will be again ten minutes from now. Stiff Little Fingers said it all better and more tunefully thirty (!) years ago, but the bottom line is that you’re making a serious blunder if you’re looking to me or anyone else for superior insight: the only insight worth having is the one you’ve developed yourself. Or that, anyway, is my opinion.

Now I’m no worse at basic operations of logic than anyone else: if my voluntarily choosing to do something is observably leading to unpleasant results, for me and everyone else…then perhaps the best way to prevent that outcome is not to engage in that particular pursuit anymore, y’know? I’m going to step away from the keyboard for awhile, which may or may not be quite a long while, and try to find ways of making better and deeper contributions — contributions, in any case, that do not involve inane nanocelebrity and the spurious, misleading and entirely unwanted mantle of “thought leadership.”

As Stiff Little Fingers’ lead singer Jake Burns used to say at the close of every gig (and it’s a habit of his which, I now realize, I’ve been subconsciously aping for years): thank you very much for your time, and your voices, and your applause. I am now and will always be grateful that you gave my words and ideas your consideration. Now go and be your own hero.

My back pages: Memento Mori

I originally published this take on Tokyo’s then-spankin’-new Roppongi Hills building 21 July 2003, on my old v-2.org site. The overwhelming mood here is sorrow – for the city, for my inability to find a comfortable place there – and it is perhaps worth dusting off now that I’m about to get on a plane for Narita as a very different person, in a very different time, headed to a very different place. I’ll be interested to see how self, city and piece have held up.

Judging from the mail I get, by the way, this is one of the most fondly-remembered and -missed of v-2 articles, so it gives me great pleasure to restore it to visibility here. Folks who weren’t around in the v-2 days might enjoy seeing it for the first time.

I promise you, this is the last thing I shall ever write for this site concerning Mori Building’s Roppongi Hills project.

Those of you who have been reading v-2 over the last year are, perhaps, overly acquainted with my sentiments regarding this massive act of hubris, this “urban renewal” project that rivals any dream Robert Moses ever had. But I hope you’ll forgive me if I reflect on its meaning a little bit further: it’s the lens through which I’ve come to see contemporary Japan. It serves the same role for me that the concrete industry did for Alex Kerr in his indispensable Dogs and Demons – not that I compare my writing to that work, in either authority or depth of research.

Roppongi Hills is, for me, an eidolon of my two years in a place I once imagined the capital of the future, and grew to loathe as I found it increasingly stifling and timid, unwilling (or unable?) to break out of an essentially feudal paradigm. The future I came to live in came to seem the thinnest veneer of chrome plating flaking rapidly from a medieval armature, something all bamboo and timeless village verities; this place, to put it mildly, is not a laboratory for the working-out of new ways of being human, in any but the most superficial and unchallenging ways.

To which it is a perfectly valid thing to say, well, so what? Who asked you to project your neophile fantasies onto Japan? My only answer to this is that Japan itself invited me to do so, in those depictions of its self that reached me across the Pacific: Masami Teraoka and H ART CHAOS, Yamamoto and Miyake, Akira and Tetsuo, the Iron Man, Ando and Ito and never least the Metabolists, with their plans to fill Tokyo Bay with towers. My imaginings were amplified and fed back to me by a hundred architectural monographs, a thousand Sony ads, ten thousand pictures of orange-haired, cellphone-wielding Harajuku schoolgirls in towering platform boots.

It was in part to assess the truth of those imaginings that I came here to live. Seven hundred and seventy-nine days and nights later, I can render the following, final report.

It will be easy to accuse me, in much of the following, as suffering from ethnocentricity. It’s true that some of my discomfort in Japan has stemmed from a personal inability to adjust – even after two years – to ways of doing things that are simply different from the systems I grew up with and was trained to accept. I have taken pains to note where this is so.

Six six sixties

Last night I stood in the shadow of Louise Bourgeois’s rather malevolent sculpture of an egg-bearing spider in the courtyard of Six Six Plaza, at the core of the Roppongi Hills development. “Six Six” is the English rendering of the longstanding, appealingly slangy Japanese name for Roppongi’s sixth block, or chome; naming the plaza this is an indirect way of admitting that an entire pre-extant neighborhood has been bought up and excised from the city, its thoroughfares and rights of way subsumed within the circulation scheme of a private development.

It was a lovely evening, the kind that’s all too rare in Tokyo summertime: soft air, just humid enough to evoke the seaside rather than the jungle, with a fat yellow moon rising behind the orange thrust of Tokyo Tower. The constant flicker of an immense video screen on which played animations specially executed for the development and reminders of the sale currently unfolding in the attached retail zone washed the plaza in shifting electric shadows, filled the air with noise.

Happy Tokyoites, never anything less than well-turned-out, flowed through the plaza, bound perhaps from the subway station to the Sky View attraction, not in mad throngs, but in sufficient numbers to impress at seven-thirty on a Wednesday night. Occasionally, one or two or three would lose their bearings, pause in obvious confusion – looking for all the world like ants, momentarily confounded by the erasure of their pheromone trail – before friendly guides hustled over to help them. Still, annoyance seemed far away, and from time to time one could hear exclamations of sugoii!! (roughly, “great!” or “super!” or simply “wow!”) rising from those stepping into the plaza for the first time.

It was this vocal approbation I found so depressing, so likely to be understood by the builder, the architectural press, and interested members of the public as confirmation of success, when the entire Roppongi Hills experience is exemplary of the worst in contemporary architecture and urban planning. It’s a throwback to early 1960s notions of city and space, wreathed perhaps in the rhetoric of digital cities and global dataflow, but even then only to the detriment of its potential.

The big nowhere

Why “the worst”? What, after all, is so very bad about this place? Surely it can’t be appreciably worse than its equivalents elsewhere?

There are two ways to answer that question. The first is to say that, yes, Roppongi Hills is rife with choices and features that are simply bad practice, seeded with dozens of moments of confoundment and disappointment that would rate poorly anywhere. The second is to consider this place in the light of everything Japan is historically so very accomplished at, culturally: subtlety, balance, proportion, elegance, fit and finish. It’s in this second register that the project’s failure of imagination and execution is exposed as far more dramatic.

Let’s concentrate, for the time being, on those aspects of Roppongi Hills that would get poor marks no matter where they were encountered.

For starters, the complex is simply pretentious. Conceived, presumably, as the apotheosis of early-twenty-first branding and marketing practice for real-estate development (as well as enduring monument to its builder), this is a mixed-use “environment” that has not merely its own logo, but its own identity system. It has not one but several slogans – one modestly insisting that “Tokyo lifestyles will be forever altered by Roppongi Hills.” It boasts a “unique and ambitious cultural complex.”

Not content with pedestrian ambitions (like simply being good), Roppongi Hills has to be “unique,” a “dynamic lifestyle destination” conceived as “a highly responsive space for intellectual relaxation” (!) and “true cultural hub” that comes fully equipped with a “concept and meaning.” A real-estate developer asserting these things would be laughed out of town in Houston, in Moscow, in Bangkok – although, sadly, one might get away with it in New York.

Well. From the sound of things, Mori wants Roppongi Hills to be judged on some pretty high standards – say, those of the 1939 GM Futurama, Barcelona’s Ramblas, the Tate Modern and Mall of America all rolled into one – but it’s difficult to take such a desire seriously when the place can’t even get the basics right.

And so things that might seem quibbles in other contexts, things it might seem petty to point out, become fair game. Like the fact that even the elevators have superfluous lighting effects, luminescent panels underfoot flaring and fading with the floors, and that even so they get it wrong, dimming with ascent instead of the poetic inverse. That nobody’s apparently considered the downstream maintenance burden imposed by such effects, nor how they’re likely to play not a week after opening but once they’ve been experienced five hundred mornings in a row.

Or the fact that the plaza’s main space of circulation, ostensibly designed to evoke a “mountain ravine” (why?), not merely confounds perfectly reasonable attempts to orient oneself but looks cheap besides. Or, now that you mention “cheap,” the fact that most visible surfaces are clad in a tacky yellow veneer that looks like precast stone. This would-be world-beater comes to seem like the malign product of a collaboration between Victor Gruen and Garden State Brickface and Stucco.

OK, these are inward-facing missteps. You can avoid them easily enough. Some of the other very bad things about Roppongi Hills aren’t so easy to dodge.

Roppongi Hills, like many of Mori’s other “Hills” projects scattered throughout greater Minato Ward – Ark Hills, Atago Green Hills, Shiroyama Hills, and so forth – is lifted up and out of the urban fabric on a podium, true to Corbusian form. The responsible civic authorities have allowed the natural flow of vehicles and pedestrians through the neighborhood to be channeled through this privatized space, such that one cannot walk in a straight line from, say, the southwest corner of Nishi-Azabu intersection to Roppongi’s subway station without passing onto Mori property.

Even walking along Roppongi-dori, the arterial passing through the district, requires a diversion up an escalator, across a footbridge, and down a stairway on the opposite side – all private. The pedestrian so doing is, of course, subjected all the while to commercial messages promoting Roppongi Hills, the other Mori developments, and the shops and firms associated with them. (The same is true of the exit at the distal end of the Hibiya subway line’s Roppongi station, which empties directly into the Hills complex, and whose standard and quite legible directional signage has been excised in favor of placards matching the complex’s graphic treatment.) Tough luck, too, if you use a wheelchair: passage previously afforded with simple curb-cuts now requires a lengthy circumnavigation involving two separate elevators.

This big nowhere has a way of sucking you in, whether you want to play or not.

Superflat fields forever

The ads. I should describe the complex’s advertising campaign, which centers around the aforementioned animated characters devised by Takashi Murakami. Murakami’s brightly-colored “superflat” world imagines Roppongi Hills as a delightful technohallucinogenic cornucopia, spewing energy and novelty into a Lucy-in-the-sky meadowscape where improbable creatures prance and gambol in irrepressible, childlike glee.

Such “chara”-driven advertising is simply ubiquitous in Japanese commercial culture, to the point that no firm, or even the Metropolitan Police for that matter, is entirely complete without its adorable anthropomorphic mascot. It is a recognizably Japanese mode of presentation – dense, nonsensical, happy, toothache-sweet, and distracting – and Murakami is an ace at it. Say what you will about his work, but it is distinctively local, to the degree that his collaboration with Louis Vuitton, in much the same mode as the Roppongi Hills ads, was recently alluded to in a mass advertisement as a reason to be proud of being Japanese.

Ironically, this singular vision contrasts strongly with the plaza itself, which is one of those places that feels like it could be anywhere: a virtual twin (pun very much intended) to Buena Vista Gardens in San Francisco. It’s pleasant enough in its way – manicured, landscaped, controlled – but shows no clue that it is of Roppongi, or Tokyo, or Japan, or much of anywhere at all. It is truly a part of the same international retail/travel/hospitality hyperspace that any fully-credentialed participant in the global overclass never need leave.

Mori advertises its Hills to this class, in Newsweek and elsewhere, as “unique ‘City in a City’ multifunctional environment[s], central-city locations that have it all: offices, stores, restaurants, and entertainment options.” The subtext is crystal clear, not even a subtext really: with English-speaking concierges “ready to direct you to the nearest convenience store…even at 3AM,” the Hills are safe spaces for the itinerant footsoldiers of glo/mo capital to sink local roots.

And it’s this, more than anything else, that leaves me scratching my head at Mori’s acclaim among Japan’s own, generally conservative tastemakers: no agency in the land seems more eager to sell the whole place out, to pave over its unique ways-of-doing-and-being for the convenience of the AXAs and the Morgan Stanleys and their foreign legion of blue-oxford-shirted, chino’d operatives. It’s a different kind of superflatness than Takashi Murakami’s, for sure.

No expense has been spared to achieve this laminar blandness, but the effect is paradoxical. If Roppongi Hills routes easily around the sort of gold-and-marble atrocities common during Japan’s 1980s “bubble economy,” it still strikes one as the act of nouveaux riches desperate to buy taste: everything is top-shelf and name-brand, including the public art and sidewalk benches.

This sounds churlish, I know – damned if they do, damned if they don’t – but the sheer avidity with which Mori Building pursues the approval of the taste elite should be a signal that all is not right. Roppongi Hills, finally, is like some parvenu billionaire walking you through the halls of his Palm Beach compound, reminding you that each painting must be “quality” because it cost so very much. Having nothing to say, it cannot speak for itself, and must speak instead in the commingled voices of its (notably, Western) surrogates and acquisitions: Louis Vuitton and Grand Hyatt, Jasper Morrison, Jonathan Barnbrook and Virgin Cinemas.

Is the development, then, uniquely, even perversely, Japanese? Or is it merely another pacified, pacifying site for global consumption, as distinct from the others of its kind as a Starbucks Manila is from a Starbucks London souvenir mug? It doesn’t seem to want to decide, and it’s in this sense of being caught between two irreconcilable visions of the world that the place most evokes its host culture for me.

Signals and noises

Here is where I see the greatest, saddest parallel between this building project and my daily experience of contemporary Japan: in the clamor of these voices, and all the superlatives they evoke, Roppongi Hills is absolutely desperate to fill every space, to shut out doubt with affirmations not even of its specialness, but of its simple existence. Like an idiot beacon shrieking “I’m here! I’m here!” into the humid night, Roppongi Hills inserts itself into every possible vista, spoors the entire neighborhood with its sonic effluvium.

It puts me in mind of something bizarre Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said not too long ago, on the occasion of Japan’s third Nobel Prize for chemistry in as many years: that “Japan isn’t dead yet.” At the time, it seemed a little curious to me that an official of any government – a Prime Minister, no less – would feel it necessary to publicly proclaim their nation still among the living.

But there’s a way in which Koizumi’s comment makes perfect sense. The Japan I came to see and to live in from half a world away, a culture of design known worldwide as the ne plus ultra in refinement, whose arts and crafts were famed for their asymptotic approach to the essential, does indeed seem moribund.

The values of a culture dedicated to the moment when nothing further could be left out, at least in those elite art and craft activities with which it has chosen to define itself – architecture, calligraphy and painting, poetry and pottery, and lest this read as a paean to antiquity, consumer electronics – are repudiated, even inverted in a place like Six Six Plaza.

Japan, if the things it currently chooses as its avatars can be taken as any evidence, is a place that no longer seems to care much for the subtle and harmonious balance of proportion and form. Instead, as fifteen minutes on the street of any of its urban cores will more than attest, it seems hellbent on filling every available moment and corner with visual, sonic, and semantic noise.

It’s not just in the things that are offered to people for commercial consumption, it’s in the choices of the people themselves: notice how many people flip out their keitai the instant they step from a subway station, as if they can’t bear too many more moments outside the communion of ones and zeroes.

Consider the interfaces of Japanese consumer electronics, ever more clouded with the pointless technological extraneity that I think of as das blinkenlights. Take a look, especially, at just about any Japanese corporate Web site, each page crammed with winking graphics, cutesy mascots, and content-free exhortations from the CEO. It’s hard to believe that this is the land from which hail so many of our notions of the charged void and the meaningful silence.

But here we seize up against some problems.

I know I flirt, troublingly, with the blunder by which Baudrillard accused would-be critics of such spectacles of “fix[ing] a real from which all meaning and charm, all depth and energy of representation have vanished in a hallucinatory resemblance,” when that reality was itself a fiction to begin with. I do think, however, that a meaningful distinction can be made between the daily life of the neighborhood that existed in Roppongi 6-chome previously, and that of the thrice-reified thing which supplanted it.

More seriously, I’m always wary of attempts to celebrate the ineffable aspect in Japanese culture; such attempts border dangerously on a sentimental Orientalism that not merely denies how very much that culture owes to its parents in China and Korea but whitewashes the pain and suffering inflicted in the acquisition.

I’m still more suspicious when people, even and maybe especially those with the best intentions, arrive from abroad with a received notion of what a culture “should” be. After all, I don’t take kindly to foreigners insisting that the core of Americanness is cowboys and Indians (let alone Bloods and Crips); nor is there any reason why anyone but the Japanese should have a say in what comes to constitute their culture. It’s not for me to say that the work of Shigeru Ban is a “truer” or “deeper” reflection of the culture’s values than the machinery that produces an Ayumi Hamasaki, even if I pray that this is so.

Given all that, it’s easy to dismiss any of what I feel to be true about the more disturbing resonances of this one bad development project. From what platform, after all, can one assert with any credibility that Japan used to be expert at finding the one element in a situation that bore psychological meaning, at manipulating the tension between what is made explicit and what is left unsaid? From what stance is it permissible to note that it now seems content wallowing in the banal and the mediocre, if that mediocrity promotes itself loudly enough?

I find myself longing for Japan to rediscover what it used to do so well: manipulating with a great degree of care what we would now think of as the ratio between signal and noise, in pursuit of such exemplars of aesthetic reductionism as the haiku, the original Sony Walkman, and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s superb night oceanscapes. I feel this, and know all the while that such a feeling is untenable: unwanted, supernumerary, irrelevant to conditions on the ground.

The lock-out effect

We know from self-organizing systems theory that there’s something called a lock-in effect, something that happens when one of a variety of alternatives – keyboard layouts, videotape formats, operating systems – passes a certain point of criticality and begins to enjoy a position of such pre-eminence that other options must find marginal niches, or fall by the wayside entirely.

We know, from our studies of human psychology, that success breeds its own curious, self-justifying aura – that the later works of Andy Warhol, for example, must have been Great Art, because Andy Warhol was known to be a Great Artist.

We know that it is ever difficult to speak truth to power, always and anywhere, but most especially in small communities where one’s life chances can be profoundly affected by how well one is seen to comply with the dominant ethos.

And we know, from what we were taught in sociology class, that Japan is a “group-oriented” culture, one where consensus is valued above all and open dissent is an unacceptable affront to wa, to harmony.

When you mix all these influences together, you get a circumstance that looks a lot like the one that produced Roppongi Hills.

You get a place where everyone recognized as an authority on such matters as, say, art or architecture, already knows everyone else in a similar position, relies critically on the continued favor of their peers for access to clients, contacts, bully pulpits, magazine covers. Once folks like this have thrown their reputation behind a judgment of quality – especially those grand eminences in the lambent autumn of a celebrated career – well, public disagreement can be injurious to one’s own prospects. Easier just to nod an assent: oh, sure, it’s great.

This, of course, also has the effect of locking out voices calling any of this into question – those embarrassing, unwelcome, discordant interjections reminding one and all that, hey, this really isn’t “sugoii,” that it’s actually pretty shabby. And simply totting up the numbers and calling things as they are is a task that falls to outsiders, whose viewpoints are valuable precisely because they’re deniable: can be incorporated, even acted on, without ever having to be acknowledged.

So let me make use of that privilege. Let me say that this development, so far from being a signpost to the way things will be done in the urban future – at least, in any future I’d want myself or my loved ones to be a part of – is merely an upjutting, backward-looking memorial to a cultural aspect that prefers noise to meaning, a world-class act of badness.

“This is just one building project,” I can hear some of you saying. “Isn’t there some good Japanese architecture you could be writing about? Ignore it, get over yourself, move on.” Yeah, well, it’s a whole lot less easy to ignore if the same dynamic plays out at the scale of a national culture and economy.

The same bad faith, the same denial, the selfsame closed loop of blank-check affirmation that produce “mere” bad architecture in Minato ward are responsible for a great many of this troubled nation’s other problems. Pointing this out, as a foreigner, brands one a “Japan hater,” or subjects the critic to a lecture on the horrors of their own nation, as if the misdeeds of others were ever an excuse for one’s own malfeasance.

Complicating any discussion of these matters, too, is the vocal faction among Western Nippophiles – many of whom have never set foot in Japan for even so long as a layover at Narita on their way to someplace else – who regard any criticism of Japanese culture as an assault on their personal choices. (The relationship between such apologists and the representation of Japan in the wider world, and particularly the sexual economy underlying that representation, is indeed a fruitful topic, and one richly deserving of explication, but unfortunately that will have to remain grist for a future article.)

By far, most of the criticism I’ve received regarding my commentary on Japan has come not from Japanese – who could assuredly not care less – but from such gaijin, who seem disproportionately grateful for the things they’ve received from their Japans, and just as unable to accept that not everyone can or would share in these benisons.

Windows on (a) world

I don’t know what to think about any of this, honestly, any of these often-contradictory lines of evidence I’ve laid before you today. I’ve often enough fulminated, waiting in one line or another during my years in Japan, at the rote and inefficient obeisance to time-honored rituals that puts this place at marked odds with (my) “contemporary” notions of brisk, clean efficiency – and here I am damning someone for producing something designed to be efficient enough for the world market. The irony barely requires acknowledgment.

Here’s what I want.

I want, as a critic who hopes to inspire more thoughtful and humanistic architecture, to tie all of these threads into one convincing argument, one summa that will encapsulate all of the things which depress me about this awful building and the culture for which, for me, it has become emblematic; for once it’s not particularly satisfying to stand with Nietzsche and decry the will to systemization. I’d like Roppongi Hills, or my version of it, to stand as an object lesson of how not to do it, one simple heuristic to guide the choices of developers and architects, mayors and residents and citizens alike.

I’d like, as a citizen of a world that includes Japan, for that culture to recover even a little bit of the attention to detail and meaning that once helped distinguish it among all humanity’s other voices: above all to design, once again, artifacts that do more with less. In our common life of constant, clamorous information overload, we need these instincts now more than ever – these solutions latent in the cultural genepool, as it were, just as valuable as the anticarcinogenic alkaloids supposedly naturally produced by rare species of Amazon flora, and every bit as endangered.

I’d like for my Japanese friends and associates to live in a world that doesn’t fetishize Japaneseness, aestheticize it even in its ugly sides, simultaneously infantilizing and absolving it. The tendency is – I know! – to giggle over sumo-wrestler trading cards and hentai games, minuscule motorcycles and capsule hotels and say, oh, how delightful, how odd and funny and other. Which lets both “them” and “us” off the hook, and I’m not having it.

I’d like, finally, for more people to get on a plane and experience Tokyo, experience Japan, not for a week or two but for long enough to deal with landlords and coworkers, neighbors and doctors and ward-office bureaucrats: in short, for long enough to get through the screen of received image and taste the daily reality. Both Japan and the rest of the world would be better off for it.

My fear, if none of these things happen, is that Japan will continue to enjoy a sort of perverse, condescending exemption from all the rules that apply elsewhere, and that this exemption will underwrite still further and more serious departures. (I worry particularly about fields especially beloved in Japan, like nanotechnology and humanoid robotics, where systems designed to local taste may be allowed to become pervasive elsewhere, without any notion on the part of either designer or adopter that they encode and reproduce a peculiarly Japanese take on reality.)

As for Roppongi Hills itself, it’s easy to forget – when one lives in a Tokyo in which it thrusts not merely from the skyline, but glossily, insistently from the covers of half the magazines on the stand and ads on the subway – that nobody much cares about it or Mori Building or anything about them in the wider world beyond. It’s just another bad development, of a sort that the world is already full of. It’s not precisely like it’s in any danger of receiving the sort of massive international acclaim that might require the injection of authoritative contrarian viewpoints, right?

Which is well and good for most of the people reading about the place, and not nearly so for those who must live or work in its shadow.

Toward urban systems design

For the last year or so, I’ve been giving a presentation called “Elements of a networked urbanism,” a version of which you can listen to here, as kindly recorded by the folks at dConstruct. (Do note that it’s a 60-minute sound file.)

I’ve generally characterized this talk as “a diagnosis and a manifesto”: both an attempt to puzzle out some of the shifts in the ways people make and use cities that occur when those cities are provisioned with ubiquitous informatics, and a set of assertions about how informatic systems should be designed to support high-quality urban life. (And yes, the original post was called “The elements of,” but as it’s obviously not a comprehensive list, that wording felt a little misleading in retrospect. Not to mention arrogant.) By and large, it’s been successful in conveying the affordances and constraints presented by a relatively novel information technology to audiences largely conversant with the granular details of that technology in a different context.

But the talk I’m planning to give at the Pompidou on 27th November and at Supernova in San Francisco a few days later is a little different. It’s called “Public objects: Connected things and civic responsibilities in the networked city,” and while it takes as text and jumping off point the same set of observations and concerns, it winds up in a different place.

Maybe you’ll see what I mean if I share the abstract I submitted for the Pompidou event:

The networked objects which are increasingly populating our lives and our cities already generate torrential, unceasing volumes of data about our whereabouts, activities, and even our intentions. How can we ensure that this data is used for the equal benefit of all? What provisions regarding such objects should citizens demand of their municipal governments? How might the juridical order respond most productively to the presence of these new urban actors?

We’re clearly into a different territory here. This is not a talk intended, primarily, for technologists, but for people who understand themselves to be citizens, constituents and co-creators of an urban polity. And it’s an attempt to use the appearance of networked informatics in our cities to argue a much larger point: that our times and circumstances call for a conscious art and craft of urban systems design.

Consider the laundry list of actors involved in framing the urban environment invoked by Rob Holmes’s recent post on big-picture thinking: “…engineers (experts in infrastructure), planners (experts in navigating the regulatory terrain of city-shaping), developers (experts in financing), and ecologists (experts in the science of relationship).” Depending on how you interpret “ecologists,” there’s precious little room in that spectrum for the kind of holism that’s capable of standing back, looking at the conjoined impact of infrastructural, economic, regulatory, political, social, financial and aesthetic choices on a given urban terrain, and making informed suggestions as to the interventions required to improve outcomes for all.

Where a need for it is seen to arise, the responsibility to think holistically about the urban milieu is generally located within architecture, never least by architects themselves. But where Holmes argues that architecture has ceded the “big picture” to the contingent whims of other disciplines, I’d submit that this is because the field is in genuine risk of missing the picture entirely. I like to think that I’m reasonably familiar with what’s going on in the domain, as an enthusiast amateur, and if I can judge by what gets published, even the more advanced practices of the current architectural generation seemingly remain smitten by scale-free, procedural strategies for the generation of form. Their exercises are often lovely, occasionally awe-inspiring, but they seem to issue from some mathic universe governed by the teraflop exertions of a deep ruleset that excludes the possibility either of human agency or of the frailty which inevitably attends it.

So I don’t think architecture is at present organized or oriented in such a way as to provide the necessary insights, nor are individual architects much motivated to do so (with the usual and much-admired exceptions). By contrast, I’d argue that we’re now in a position to articulate something of what a truly integrative faculty might look like, what a curriculum in urban systems design might contain:

Any such thing would have to be deeply grounded in a literacy in complex adaptive systems. I’m thinking, of course, of the kind of thing that the worthies of Stamen work so hard to evoke and do so well, but also the work that Paul Torrens does. The result would be something that integrated an understanding of economic geography and incentive landscapes at all of the relevant (time and spatial) scales.

That word “incentive” offers a big fat clue as to another vital component: any useful practice of urban systems design would have to offer an account of human motivation under typical city-scale conditions of concentration and density – and not merely one that reduces to biological drives. One would further hope this account would be built on the best, most nuanced and sensitive qualitative research available.

It would have to be able to model the role of all the interdependent actors involved in producing urbanity: from institutional and technological to climatological, animal and microbial. (The networked informatic systems I’m most personally concerned with would of course be numbered among these actors.)

It would exhibit deep respect for the phenomenological, which is to say, for material and semiotic and linguistic particularity.

And – at least in my version – it would emphasize the importance of human choices and decisions. Of especial interest is how choices made in any layer cascade through all the systems connected to it, or fail to, so we’d wind up (for example) able to depict how a specification made by a standards body, at the urging of one manufacturer, makes a networking standard more or less likely to be broadly adopted, and how that same standard once adopted winds up allowing (or compelling, or forbidding) certain kinds of behavior.

The aim of all of this would be to improve outcomes for everyone who lives in a city. Starting from a hard-headed assessment of the negotiations required and the parties and imperatives that need somehow to be satisfied, the goal would be to design interventions (and non-interventions) that enhance the quality of life in a particular urban terrain in whatever ways resonate with the motivations discovered there, and whatever “quality” is seen to mean. Ultimately, even “sustainability” as that goal is currently understood would merely be a subset of this endeavor.

Especially given the by-now-clichéd recognition that we’ve decisively become an urban species, the time for such a movement, frankly, isn’t now: we needed it desperately yesterday, last week, last century. From where I am both delighted and seriously privileged to stand, though – able to travel the world, astride many conversations and disciplinary communities but beholden to none – I can tell you that alongside the genuine and acute need for this work there stands a cohort of brilliant, insightful, compassionate people hungry to take it up. Many of them, it’s true, already know each other, or at least of one another, and are working the puzzle together from whichever angle is most congenial to their skills and desires…but still more of the people with the relevant interests and ambitions do not.

If you’re working in any of the areas implicitly bound up in all this, or about to, and think you’d like to address this set of challenges, I’d like to spend my time helping you to meet the others so embarked and find useful outlets for your energy and effort. For myself, I’m going to devote the balance of my career to the question of urban systems design, in ways formal and informal, purposive and casual, hard-knuckled and ludic – and I’d very much like it if you joined me, in whatever way you felt most comfortable.

My god, it’s full of stars

Odd morning for me here in Finland: the morning uplink brings word, simultaneously, of Arthur C. Clarke’s passing and of Barack Obama’s truly epochal speech on race.

I’m not really in a place at the moment, either practically or psychically, to integrate these two pieces of news or what (especially) the latter may portend. What I do feel, amid all the excellent reasons for sorrow that the world has on offer, is a measure of hope for the future. Just a measure, mind you, but it’s there and it’s real.

What a strange and unexpected thing to feel.

Diagnosticians

I think of some people as being crackerjack diagnosticians. Everybody knows someone like this – someone who can eyeball a given situation and tell you precisely what is wrong with it, and how, and why.

This is a useful skill to have, surely, and such people are a vital part of any project team. But in my experience, it’s striking how very rarely people whose primary talent has to do with the accurate assessment of pathology are actually any good at fixing it.

To some degree, I include myself in the above category, which is why I can easily imagine that it must be sort of a sad and frustrating place to find yourself – knowing that you’re an ace at spotting other people’s errors, without being at all sure that you can affirmatively produce meaning and beauty in your own work.

The lesson I’ve learned from working with people like this that their manager has to find the proper role for them, has to make sure that their talent is harnessed, their perspicacity is acknowledged, and that they’re offered ample opportunities for professional growth and development. (Who knows? They might find in time that they’re actually able to execute at the same level of refinement they routinely expect of others.)

But they also need to be buffered somehow, because most people (and certainly most institutions) are incapable of delivering to the stratospheric standards your average diagnostician regards as eminently reasonable. They might be correct in their critique, but they’re not going to be useful. And if there’s anything I’ve learned in the unruly course of my career, it’s that insisting on a position simply for the sake of being able to say that you were right all along does not make for excellent work.

Of course, knowing how to accomplish such buffering is where all the art and mystery lies. : . )

Mission time: D+14,471

Solitude is an inescapable quality of the serious endeavor of writing, something I realize now that I simultaneously missed and did not miss in the slightest.

In order to get anything done, I find that I have to lever myself up and out of my usual routines and rededicate myself to the mission, solely. This generally means trooping off to the New York Public Library’s Rose Reading Room, one of the city’s greatest spaces, and a splendid aid to contemplation in and of itself. And there I sit, immersed in nothing but the job and its paraphernalia, for as long as I can stand it.

“Stand it,” because I don’t, by nature, have amazing powers of concentration. This is ordinarily something I self-medicate with massive doses of caffeine. But coffee isn’t an option in the Library. And since a limited attention span is a pretty implacable thing, and given that there’s not a whole hell of a lot to distract me from the screen in front of me, I inevitably get a lot of unfocused thinking done, too.

Mostly this is of the staring-off-into-space variety. If there’s any theme at all to this musing, it’s time, time and its passage. And this is how I come to realize that I’m coming up on fifteen thousand days in.

There’s no particular significance to this number, mind you. It’s just that the image of a master lifeclock is kind of an idée fixe for me. (In the shitty, never-to-be-published SF novel I wrote in the early 90s, one of the characters had a glowing ELAPSED LIFE TIME tattoo on her bicep, subdermal LEDs powered by turbines in the arteries beneath.) And running such calculations is an ideal way to burn cycles while I’m waiting to bank up enough patience to again deal with Lefebvre, or whatever.

Digit counters falling. (Accompanied in the imagination by a flat, muffled click, as if the operations of the universe ran on a circa-’72 woodtone Sony clock radio.) Time and aloneness. Unreturned messages and the cavernous space of the Reading Room. When you finally get your hands on this book, that’s what will be lying underneath every word on the page.

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