Technologies changing architecture, and the world, for good or ill

Words:
Owen Hopkins

Owen Hopkins of the Centre for Architecture and Cities at Newcastle University chooses as his book of the year this perceptive analysis of the impact of emerging technologies

Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, by Adam Greenfield, Verso, 2018

I have always been interested in technology, less for its own sake and more for its relationship to society, social interaction and politics. And that, in many ways, is the subject of Radical Technologies.

The title is a bit banal and doesn’t really do justice to the book. It’s an amazing, elegant and perceptive analysis of how fundamental technologies such as the smartphone have already changed the world, and how emerging technologies like augmented reality, machine learning, artificial intelligence and blockchain will affect us all even more, for good and for ill.

Along the way, the book looks at the gap between what these technologies were originally intended to do and what ultimately they are doing to us, both as individuals and society. It offers a critical explanation and analysis of their often troubling consequences. In particular, there is a really clear account of blockchain, the technology underlying Bitcoin, explaining terms that are often bandied about but can be very hard to understand. This is valuable – if you don’t understand it, you can’t understand what its impact could be.

The question is, why is this book relevant to architects? I think it is because many of the new and emerging technologies have profound spatial implications that could fundamentally change how architects operate. For example, for some years architects have dabbled in virtual reality as a tool of visualisation, the next thing beyond a photo-realistic render that can give an even more apparently real impression of a project than a drawing, for instance. But actually, the real impact on architecture will be right at the other end of the design process in the way that buildings and the city are perceived. Very soon, we may be looking through buildings not through our own eyes but through a digital interlay – it’s already happening to some extent in how we use our phones to navigate. And that new lens will have profound implications for how we design.

We’ve never really had an understanding of how technology will change society. When the iPhone was launched, for example, no-one had any idea how transformative it would be. But technological changes are going to shape the very basis of how we live and structure our lives.

But none of these technologies are ideologically neutral. Many assumptions are made in the design of these devices. On the most basic level, ask yourself why an iPhone features a stocks app so prominently? It’s because the people who design it are the sort of demographic who own stock, so for them it’s a given that we should all have it. And why are smart phones obsessed with giving us notifications for restaurants or cafés so we can read the reviews rather than imagining that we would just serendipitously like to come across somewhere and choose to go in? Because that’s not what they’d do in Silicon Valley, where people don’t walk along and browse but drive to a particular, pre-decided destination.

This book looks at the implications of the impact of these technologies on us as individuals. In doing so, it gives the reader the critical framework to take a step back and think about what’s really driving these devices. Through this new understanding, we can begin to generate a groundswell of opinion to make technology do the things we want it to do, instead of what those people in Silicon Valley may want it to do.

This is a book every architect needs to read if they’re in any way interested in the future of the world in which architecture operates, and in the role of the architect within it.

As told to Pamela Buxton

Owen Hopkins is director of the Centre for Architecture and Cities at Newcastle University

Read four other recommended books:

Annalie Riches of Mikhail Riches on Wilding – The return of nature to a British Farm by Isabella Tree

Matt Barnett Howland of CSK Architects on In Praise of Shadows by Junichirõ Tanizaki

Nick Newman of Studio Bark on On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal by Naomi Klein

Tszwai So, director of Spheron Architects, on How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett