The Circle: Be Afraid

October 30, 2013

I have just finished reading Dave Eggers’s apocalyptic novel, The Circle, which I highly recommend to everyone. The book is scarier than the latest installment of the Halloween movie franchise.

Its premise: that a Google/Amazon/Twitter/Facebook/Apple conglomerate will eventually take over the world, is less far-fetched than one might think. Privacy is rapidly vanishing with NSA (government) computers, Google advertising data, and all manner of prying eyes invading our personal space.

With the conceit of two female characters–Annie and Mae (note the play on “anima” or soul)–Eggers weaves a taut narrative about the choices we face in the near future over “transparency” and “security” in an information saturated society. How much of our personal data, even our inner selves, will we relinquish to the global information octopus? Where will the thirst for more data, and more invasion of our personal lives, lead?

While I found the book a bit cartoonish in some of its portrayals and themes, it forces the reader to think about information technology in a critical way, unlike the largely boosterish rhetoric that comes from most tech media sources (mainly out of the Silicon Valley). Like George Packer’s more comprehensive The Unwinding, the book focuses needed attention on the mind-set of California technology moguls graduating from Stanford, who appear to view the rest of society with a kind of contempt.

The power of big data, the web, and microchips to manage society’s biggest problems is largely overestimated by these geeky utopian thinkers. Serious writers are beginning to burst their bubbles. Let us hope that they listen to some of the static and do something to temper their enthusiasm.

 

 

 

 

Last month the American Institute of Architects announced yet another reorganization. The Institute, as we in the profession know it, often moves the deck chairs to give the impression of relevance. We get news of these organizational shuffles about every 10 years. This time there appears to be some substance to the moves made at top levels of the organization.

What the AIA calls “repositioning” involves doing what architects need to do to respond to a fundamental change in the way we do business in a post recession environment. Almost every practitioner is acutely aware of this change–clients are paying less for the same services, government is moving away from design-oriented solutions, the public is far less educated about what architects do, and there is little or no discourse about what makes a beautiful and commodious environment in our cities, towns and rural areas. “Sustainability” is a hollow word that has come to obscure rather than illuminate a real crisis. Just when architecture and urban design are most critically needed to help solve fundamental problems in the way we live and work, institutions and the general public have turned away from the design professions. There has been no comparable shift in our standing since the 1920s, when the Modern Movement asserted itself as a revolutionary force.

What has Mickey Jacobs, the current president, done to address this change? Let me first say that Jacobs is unlike most leaders of recent years in facing problems head on, with little reverence for past positions. He has actually shrunk the board of directors, weeding out dead weight and insisting upon results from his leadership team. That impresses me.

Jacobs convened a working group in September, and passed a strong but simple resolution that was immediately sent to all members. Using the internet and a video presentation, he made his points succinctly and with little fanfare. He admitted that a crisis was upon us, and outlined several steps intended to address the most pressing problems we face.

Here are the three points:

(1) Elevate public awareness

(2) Advocate for the profession

(3) Create and expand the sharing of knowledge and expertise to ensure a prosperous future for our members

As the resolution states, “Never before have we needed this level of bold, visionary leadership to inspire architects to work together and build a better world for all people—through architecture.”

That is all obvious enough. How shall we move forward to accomplish these goals? One avenue not explored nearly enough of late is to use the power of information and the Internet to spread the word. Jacobs and his team have committed to provide better dissemination of vital information.

Educating the public about what we do as professionals is also key. The program outlined by the resolution is straightforward, and may succeed. However, if our educational institutions–on both primary and secondary levels–are not part of the initiative, we shall not succeed.

Last, and not least, advocacy at the level of institutions and government is an absolute necessity if architects are to reclaim any kind of authority. AIA lobbying efforts have paled in comparison to those of the legal and medical professions. Washington is controlled by special interest lobbies. Architects should have a strong presence there.

So, Mr. Jacobs has thrown down the gauntlet. We await the results of his first battles, and hope for success.