Society of Insatiable Consumption: Internet and Image / by kaz + greg

by Kaz Yoneda and Gregory Serweta, AIA

Moore’s Law (itself not a scientific law, but a projection in which doubling cycles are constantly been updated) manifests our increasing appetite to consume information and rich images, made possible by parallel growth in the number and size of pixels. Perhaps, the digital images are already the reality, beyond the actuality human senses can process. Architecture’s presence has been in an inverse relationship with technology: With the advent of the personal computer, the Internet, and mobile technology, architecture has been driven by its own kind of Moore’s law, in a combination of architecture’s own “slowness” with technological obsolescence and ever-present consumerist demand. Thus, the production of images that skims the ideal withdrew from the purview of architects and into the hands of digital delineators, or renderers.

Therein lies a peculiar antinomy. Where is all that energy going? Let us postulate that the doubling of transistors, according to Moore’s claim, also encapsulate the energy used in their production, due to the first law of thermodynamics. This would suggest, then, that the encapsulated energy would be transferred to objects that are further produced via the transistors. If the “object” in this case is an image, then the image itself would necessarily contain within it the encapsulated energy. Theoretically, when our sensorial faculties “consume” these images, that encapsulated energy must go somewhere. In the vapid consumer culture, in particular of Japan, where is all that energy going to?

The object of production and the way energy is encapsulated are increasingly metamorphosing from Hardware to Software. While consumer products, such as automobiles, appliances, and later, computers and mobile phones, have their cycles of planned obsolescence and demands of novelty—beyond their introductory revolutionary impact on a market—most products have had only incremental changes to their Hardware. Cars still drive, blenders still mix, microwave ovens still... microwave. However, the user interface and the user experiences with these products have changed, and even more so have the Internet of Things and Artificially Intelligent Interfaces. The demands on architecture, however, have not been so great. Even with the emergence of the smart house, with self-adjusting thermostats and energy-efficient context-aware self-dimming lights, the promise of truly ubiquitously-upgrading homes has yet to come.

But at the same time, the consumption of architecture at a mass scale switched to something to be seen, not built, or bought, or occupied, or experienced in person, through the dissemination and popularization of the digital image and the Internet: “The spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision, as a product of the techniques of mass dissemination of images. It is, rather, a Weltanschauung which has become actual, materially translated. It is a world vision which has become objectified.”(1) With the technologies of the 20th century, the digital image has found many media platforms for its dissemination and popularization in today’s always-wired, always-on, always-tweeting society. From the nascent days of early websites and web search engines, into an explosion of blog platforms like LiveJournal and Wordpress, to social media like MySpace and Facebook, and ultimately to mobile, with ubiquitous cameras in-built in smartphones and apps such as Instagram and SnapChat, the simple image has undergone mass democratization and dissemination in society, and has come to redefine the way we interact and experience the world.

To note, the foil in this shift of consumption (and production) and in the very meaning of Hardware, played out as well in America’s industrial centers in the latter half of the 20th century. Cities, such as Detroit and Buffalo in the so-called Rust Belt, that gradually lost their historically-prominent manufacturing industries and factories of mass production—with their cathedrals of manufacturing empty and their neighborhoods depopulated—are now subject to renewed interest as photogenic subject matter, for their historical relics, abandoned houses, and empty lots. Niche genres, like ruin porn and blogs such as Fuck Yeah Brutalism, re-aestheticize architecture of the not-so-distant-past and out-of-fashion styles for the consumption of new-found audiences through photography.


Guggenheim Helsinki competition entries superimposition
Image by Ann Charleston

Architects themselves now use images of architecture as the supreme means to convey architecture’s value to a consumerist audience. An audience who prefers the pleasure of nice-looking pictures over critical thinking. Surpassing the sexy, highly-botoxed photographs, renderings reign supreme. Take one look at the recent strings of well-publicized international competitions, such as the Guggenheim Helsinki Museum or 2020 Olympic Tokyo Stadium, and you will see not-so-inconspicuous ocularcentrism.(2) The request for proposals issued by the Japan Sport Council’s Olympic stadium design selection committee(3), led by Tadao Ando and comprised of architects as well as politicians, was drafted mainly by bureaucrats who, according to Fumihiko Maki, had no firsthand knowledge of architecture whatsoever.(4) The requirements for the competition posters exemplify this point more poignantly than words can describe. Here, also, the “design seems to advance a new kind of narcissism, one that is all images and no interiority – an apotheosis of the subject that is also its potential disappearance.”(5)

This is not a globally-isolated phenomenon. Tokyo is just the latest rendition of a fad running through the past few Olympics. That is to say, not only are the most important flagship facilities of the Olympiads decided by images, but precisely because of this, they are mere shells: “As the indispensable decoration of the objects produced today, as the general exposé of the rationality of the system, as the advanced economic sector which directly shapes a growing multitude of image-objects...”(1) Superficies offset, thickened, materialized to become structural, functional, and decorated shell all-at-once. The shell makes these stadia’s inner hollowness, both actually and figuratively, palatable. However, what happens in Tokyo hyperbolizes this epiphenomenon to a whole new level. An image is further comported in more layers of infinitely-regressive images, proportional to the importance of the void within it—or the image of importance the object conveys—which becomes lost in the simulacra of value that it never had as a present-at-hand. By chance, here again, one shell (Zaha Hadid’s) was subsumed and wrapped into another shell (Kengo Kuma’s); from hard shell to a porous anti-object.

1. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black and Red, 1970,) pp. 5
2. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin (West Sussex: Wiley-Academy, 2005)  pp. 19
3. Japan Sport Council, “New National Stadium International Concept Design Competition Submission Guidelines,” (Tokyo: Japan Sport Council, July 20, 2012) pp. 15
4. Fumihiko Maki, “Re-thinking the New National Olympic Stadium in Historical Background of Jingu-Gaien,” JIA Magazine, August 29, 2013
5. Hal Foster, Design and Crime: And Other Diatribes (London: Verso, 2002) pp. 25
6. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black and Red, 1970,) pp. 15