Eric Hunting on P2P Architecture (3): Plug-in approaches and the soft-high tech divide

The third part of our interview on p2p architecture.

Eric is still responding to the following multiple-thread question:

“do you have any ideas about a possible integration of what you call the soft-tech (if not anti-tech) sensibility of the ecovillage movement, and the more pro-high tech approaches, such as you mention, and I have also seen at work in the Viridian movement of Bruce Sterling and the people behind What I see as an emerging issue is the problem of scaling: how do we go from the passionate movements that you describe, especially with hobby enthusiasts, to the scale of global (albeit locally-specified and adaptable) solutions that can offer any hope for our dire biospheric straits? This is a feeling I often come up with: you see many things happpenign and already available as concrete solutions, but at the same time, the mainstream seems stuck and static?”

1. Towards a true plug-in architectural system

Eric Hunting:

What we have not as yet seen because the structural technology has not yet existed to support it is the effect on community P2P and concepts of propriety where architecture is both relatively resilient, able to support higher degrees of sound and visual insulation, and spontaneously adaptable at a very low level of labor, as would be the case with a true plug-in architectural system. Pavilion architecture allowed rapid evolution but still with a delay of some years between structural renovations, with a need for a large labor pool for key structural elements. With a plug-in architecture major reconfiguration of structures becomes a one to few person task taking a few days, allowing for more spontaneous experimentation and customization within an agreed-upon personal space and also the major reconfiguration of a whole community in response to seasons and different situations. Even in the highly socially dynamic environment of past communities, when a P2P negotiation was conducted on the design and construction of things, the results of these group decisions had to be lived-with for years to generations. So there was much emphasis on coming to definitive terms before any work was done. But with this new technology no decision really has to stand for a long time because there’s no terribly great labor overhead in construction and components can be freely re-used. What might this mean for the character of a habitat?

Also relating to this is the concept of macrostructure/microstructure systems or what I refer to as functionally generic architecture, which I think urban architecture is heading toward. This is where you have a heavy large-span macrostructure that defines the architecture of a community at the large community scale but is functionally generic at the human level, like an empty loft apartment building. This macrostructure is used as a host for a spontaneously adaptable in-fill microstructure that, because it has this larger sheltering structure functioning as a ‘skybreak’, does not need to be as robust in strength and so can be lower-tech. This is the strategy of Paulo Soleri’s larger arcologies where the macrostructure is essentially a heavy generic structural system organized into ‘cells’ of very large unit size -several storeys high and as wide at they are high- that the habitable architecture fills-in and often conceals. (many people have misinterpreted arcology structures because they could not visualize the scale, and so often assumed this ‘cell’ structure to be analogous to a prison cell or a human scaled honeycomb when, in fact, it’s an open volume as large or larger than a typical suburban housing lot) So you get this split in the nature of P2P negotiation between the non-evolving or very slowly evolving macrostructure and the fast and spontaneously evolving microstructure as the personal level. (of course, Soleri never intended for there to be any P2P negotiation at the macroscale level -that was his job as master architect…) I’ve had to consider this in the context of marine settlement because, early on, when a community is small and in sheltered water, it’s easy to make the whole community spontaneously evolvable but when you get to the open sea your dealing in heavy concrete structural systems with massive areas of structure covered in parkland that cannot physically evolve as easily while you still need to accommodate spontaneous adaptability at the human scale to prevent these larger structures from being made functionally obsolete too quickly. These are some of the things I’m particularly interested in seeing work in the context of a Maker incubator community.”

2. How to bridge the Soft-Tech vs. Eco-Tech divide?

Eric Hunting:

Concerning the question of how we bridge the divide between Soft-Tech and Eco-Tech; the point where they meet is something pragmatic environmentalists refer to as ‘appropriate’ technology. What is appropriate in the sense of optimal environmental sustainability relative to the context of a particular cultural and environmental setting and its particular logistics and economics. The soft-tech movement was/is counter-culturally premised. It’s based on the notion of turning culture back toward a presumably more sustainable pre-industrial predominately agrarian way of life as a solution to the inherent ills of ‘hard’ technology. It’s based on the presumption that primitive always equals sustainable. (a notion whose origins rest in Victorian Romanticism and which tends to overlook the simple fact that western Europe had largely denuded its landscape and re-instituted mass slavery and indentured servitude by the start of the Industrial Revolution…) The Eco-tech movement is super-culturally premised. It suggests that unsustainability was always an inherent problem in human civilization, always a precipitator of regional civilization collapse, and not just a just a problem of the Industrial Age and that the solution is more technology, not less, because the natural trend in evolution of industrial technology is toward increased resource efficiency. Efficiency equals sustainability. Environmental degradation and unsustainability are thus not a product of technology itself but rather the inefficiency of a given state of technology and persists as a result of the deliberate suppression of the advance of technology for the sake of economic and political hegemonies, as typified by the oil and auto industry cartels and their suppression of renewable and alternative energy technology. Appropriate technology takes a middle-ground approach you might call alter-cultural. It suggests that neither high nor low tech can be regarded as automatically more sustainable. Sustainability is context-specific. It agrees with the eco-tech premise that technology is not wrong or evil in and of itself but new or old technology have no automatic virtues either. They are equally potentially destructive when inappropriate. The plow could destroy the earth just as readily as the nuclear bomb if used the wrong way.

I think the biggest problem with bridging the gap here is going to be the attitudes of people in contemporary mainstream environmentalism, which is sliding toward a kind of self-absorbed religious extremism with an apocalyptic obsession. There’s much more pragmatism in the Eco-Tech camp and so they more readily accept the notion of appropriateness even though they desire to push the edge of that as rapidly as possible. But it’s a different story for the environmental mainstream. People are not really using and advocating soft technology because it’s demonstrably or provably more sustainable. They adopt it as an aesthetic and cultural statement and take it on faith that primitive equals sustainable. You don’t even hear the term ‘soft-tech’ used very much in the environmentalist community anymore even though it coined it. Any implication that what they are advocating is any kind of technology, and not an alternative to technology, is now blasphemy. I’ve had arguments with self-professed environmentalists where they actually objected to my use of the word ‘efficiency’ in any environmental context claiming that was a corporate culture buzzword. Increasingly, discussions of eco development mirror the sentiment of survivalists, with the same Malthusianist logic -which often stands in stark contrast to their veneration of the virtues of community. Environmentalism as a movement seems to have given up on the future and now, like the Christian right-wing, is just waiting for -praying for- apocalypse to come and sweep the non-believers out of the way. So much more convenient than actually having to negotiate with people you don’t like…

So I’m starting to think Alex Steffen’s and Cory Doctorow’s notion of an Outquisition has something to it -or more specifically the notion of Eco-Tech community safe-havens where the enthusiasts of Post-Industrial technology can cultivate it in a progressive environment. This is largely the same thing Marshal Savage was proposing in the Aquarius phase of TMP. He felt that in order to accelerate the cultivation of a potentially space-faring culture -a kind of Post-Industrial culture by default- one needed to put people in a situation and location that compelled them to pursue efficiency, environmental sustainability, and industrial self-sufficiency by any technological means as a way of life and as preparation for living beyond Earth. He chose the sea as a logical place to do that because it’s the next-best-thing to being in space and it insulates one from the instant material gratification of mainland markets, forcing you to figure out how to make what you need or want in new ways. It’s not as immediately deadly a place as space but it’s not as benign or homogenously rich with resources as the New World was so it challenges you to be smarter. You can live very comfortably -luxuriously- but not the same way you would on land. (as Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo pointed out) So Aquarius is intended to create a kind of new, largely ignored, country on the Equator where an Eco-Tech culture is independently cultivated to the point where one day, as Savage put it, it comes to the poker table of the world market like a player with a fire hose spewing chips up his sleeve. I tend to be of the opinion that we can also cultivate this ‘new country’ in a subversive way in the midst of the existing habitat. This is an option the Internet has given us; coordinated activity on a global scale through virtual community. We’ve now got this ability to create very tight social groups and coherent sub-cultural movements independent of location. But, as you note, there’s a real problem of how to turn the efforts of virtual communities into anything real, to go beyond intellectual products to things that constitute a physical habitat. This is a question I’ve long struggled with in the LUF because The Millennial Projects presents us with a very similar question; how do you turn the activity of a globally dispersed community of people linked only by Internet communications into the single largest space program in history?”

2 Comments Eric Hunting on P2P Architecture (3): Plug-in approaches and the soft-high tech divide

  1. Pingback: P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » Eric Hunting on P2P architecture (4): the maker movement and the quest for an open industrial infrastructure

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