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Content & Crisis

One of many unmistakable truths about the year 2016 is that we all posted a lot. We posted a lot. We posted on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Reddit, and Periscope, because we had a moment of free time, were bored, did something cool, wanted to participate, needed to vent, couldn’t sleep, or—more than anything else—never strayed more than a few feet from a device that made it so easy to post. It’s now 2017 and we’re still posting furiously. As we have roads and cars and therefore drive, the technological context we inhabit is designed for us to post content, so we do.

That we as a human race generate unimaginable volumes of text and imagery every second is clear, but it’s less certain what kind of agency these new tools give us, whether that agency is real or illusory, and whether we’ve exchanged something less valuable in order to get it. At a glance, it’s hard to conclude that one ordinary person doesn’t have more power at his fingertips than a king had a thousand years ago: the ability to broadcast communication to a potential audience of millions or conduct massive, instantaneous financial transactions.

To a hammer, though, every problem is a nail, and we perhaps overexcite ourselves with a myth that we’ve finally mastered the universe when we’re just increasingly digital hammers, optimized for our chosen domain of influence and blind to problems that aren’t informational nails. The most potent lesson of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency was that spirited content generation within controlled platforms did not sufficiently impact the messy world beyond those platforms’ reach, it just increased its users’ confidence in an alternate version of reality.

“I feel bad for our country. But this is tremendous content,” Darren Rovell tweeted last October, an ill-advised, tone-deaf statement that accidentally captures the present zeitgeist perfectly. A similar sentiment appears in the movie We Are Your Friends: Ayesha Siddiqui observes in her brilliant review that the central characters state their vague intent to “invent an app, start a blog, sell things online” as if it’s a mantra. And finally, of course, Bruce Sterling offers Favela Chic as a conceptual vehicle for these examples, the condition “when you have lost everything material, everything you built and everything you had, but you’re still wired to the gills and really big on Facebook.”

Put another way, our software is getting better while our hardware is getting worse. We’re better equipped than ever to solve software problems as hardware problems become more difficult by comparison, so we give in to the temptation to rebrand the latter as the former, a grave mistake. The Port Authority doesn’t need more data as much as it needs appointed leaders who won’t close the George Washington Bridge for political revenge. Data and connectivity have done wonders for mankind in the past decade, and the so-called real world is closely enough intertwined with digital technology by now that it’s impossible to speak of the two as separate entities, but this doesn’t mean there aren’t certain things that software simply can’t do. Sterling’s Favela Chic metaphor captures the divergence between physical reality, where scarcity still rules, and digital reality, where it barely exists, that most of the world has experienced in recent decades. Communities suffering from abject poverty (a physical or “hardware” problem) still enjoy disproportionate abundance of information and connectedness, but those are too high up Maslow’s hierarchy to make a fundamental difference.

In The Stack, Benjamin Bratton suggests as a thought experiment that half of all architects and urban designers stop building new buildings and instead focus on creating software that enables better usage of the built environment we already have, while the other half continues building as before. In a sense, this experiment is already well underway, although too few urbanists are creating the software. The half that just continues building may be outside the scope of Bratton’s argument, but as a representative group for addressing the world’s hardware problems in so many domains, they’re once again the more important half.

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