Networks & Natures

As the newest principal of metaLAB, I bring my own set of preoccupations to the group. My splintered interests in ethnography, computing, and architecture often converge in questions about changing human-machine-environment relationships. For instance, in my recent book, Co-Designers: Cultures of Computer Simulation in Architecture, I ask how professional roles and relationships in design are transforming along with the technologies for imagining buildings before they are built. I find a master architect keeps his hand in design by staying close to his apprentice who is an architect but also a hacker; an acoustician creates a dual identity as a scientist and a collaborative co-designer by opening acoustical analysis to shared, simulated experience; a fire safety engineer helps clients meet regulations, but uses simulations to get around them when the rules over-constrain the designs. These professional lives exemplify new hybrid ways of being a designer that are emerging around computer simulation in architecture.

At metaLAB, my interest in the entanglements among humans, machines, and environments extends into new arenas, including a group research domain we are calling Networks & Natures. In my book, I focus on the ways in which human relationships with technology play out and resonate in an architectural context. However, there are other spaces of interaction worth studying. Images of nature are often set apart from and in tension with buildings and cities, but they are no less affected by networked cultures. Natural environments are unbuilt, but still constructed; organic, but fiercely curated; and pastoral, but enmeshed with technology. Indeed, computing technologies are not only reshaping our representations of built environments; they are transforming our conceptions of the natural realms that buildings inhabit, displace and push up against.

Fifty years ago, in The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx drew widespread attention to the complex role of technology in the construction of the American pastoral image. In Marx’s reading of rural landscapes through works of literature, technologies like the locomotive appear as markers of the widespread encroachment of human society, with its simultaneously constraining and chaotic structures, into idealized spaces of gentle wilderness. Today, in 2012, I find myself identifying changing standards in computing as markers of the incessant expansion of human control systems. If the train whistle was the signal of human civilization entering the otherwise serene realm of the garden during the 19th century, what is the marker of technological incursion today if not the sensor, the ringtone, or the drone? In contrast to the violent intrusion of the train into nature, the creep of computing is much quieter, but no less jarring. Indeed, terms like “ubiquitous computing” and “pervasive computing” suggest that our latest technologies go anywhere; unlike the train, they don’t need tracks. At metaLAB, we are asking: how is the natural world being creatively reimagined in networked cultures? Follow us through Networks & Natures as we explore the wilder sites of interaction among humans, machines, and environments. The Arnold Arboretum is one such site. Indeed, it functions not only as a plant laboratory in the midst of Boston, but as a testing ground for encounters across worlds: urban and pastoral, social and natural, technological and organic. Projects at the Arboretum and other sites of Networks & Natures will be featured here periodically as they emerge. We will also host opportunities to engage in related community events, including a seminar series on Networks & Natures at Harvard this fall.