Buildings and infrastructure, as shapers of the urban milieu, have been superseded by a state of so-called ‘pandemonia’ - the superimposition of cybernetic principles upon the organisation, regulation and control of urban space. For those who cling to the ordered variations of the city plans of the recent past, today’s metropolis is utterly chaotic. Bandwidth has replaced the boulevard, and commuting has given way to the mouse click. After thousands of years of blocks held by mortar, the contemporary city is now stitched together by new modes of communication and control.
> The Three Ages of the Machine
Following the Industrial Revolution, society has advanced through the First and Second machine ages [mechanical and electrical respectively]. During these phases, machines developed from simple mechanical tools to fully electrified tools, and the human-machine relationship remained primarily recurrent and linear in nature, and was based rigidly upon processes of usage and action.
|+ Pandemonium - the three ages of the machine [CTW 2010]|
According to Deleuze and Guattari, society has recently entered a third phase in its industrialisation trajectory, their so-called ‘Third Age of the Machine’, in which human-machine systems have now become non-linear [or cybernetic] in nature, replacing the previous non-reversible relation during the First and Second ages. The connection between the human and the machine is now based upon internal, mutual communication, and is no longer driven by processes of usage and action. The ‘Third Age’ has come to dominate all industrial landscapes, particularly in the continuous-process manufacturing and information technology industries.
> The Human + The Industrial Machine
The liberation of information-processing techniques from the human worker began in industry in the 1970s, via the adoption of ‘flexible specialisation’. Previously, Fordist semi-automated assembly lines operated through the resonance of the rhythms of labour and production processes, in such a manner as to enable production routines to be easily quantified and repeated. The advent of cybernetic machines severed this labour-production / human-machine interface – now, the worker has been entirely assimilated into a cybernetically-directed and controlled matrix of production. The human and the machine have been spliced together, and both now function as reciprocal agents within contemporary production environments. As production has become increasingly automated, a deep divide has been created within the workforce. On the one hand, there are the highly skilled engineers and systems analysts who direct, control and maintain complex industrial machinery. However, on the other hand, there are the masses of unskilled workers, whose sole economic asset is their geographic mobility. As a result, a major issue has arisen from the arrival of cybernetic production: is the worker now forever destined to be either a controller of flux, or to merely become a controlled element of flux?
> The Human + The Information Machine
The organisational and bureaucratic criteria of information environments were subjected to reconsideration in an abstract form in order to free flows of information, which resulted in corresponding transformation to their spatial manifestation. The resulting environment was then recast as a dynamic processing machine, in which variations in the physical environment were shaped by communication flows, and the hierarchical organisation of control began to evolve. The decentralisation of control is seen as a more sophisticated organisational paradigm to a centralised system. With the information age came a new type of office collective, the Burolandschaft, which accommodated the fresh need for greater fluidity in information processing, and a desire to free production from top-down control. Yet a strict level of control is nevertheless implemented, via the creation of an environment of peer-surveillance, in which the work environment has become all-encompassing and relentless. Burolandschaft attempted to embed workers within the process, to act like the parts of a machine as nodes for communication flow. Hierarchy within the information production environment is no longer linear but can now be defined by non-linear networks – the office has become performative.
|+ Pandemonium - cybernetic systems [image courtesy of Tim Marjot 2010]|
> A Cybernetic Urbanism?
The city, as a complex entity in a perpetual state of flux, has been transformed as a result of the assimilation of cybernetic principles into all aspects of the urban network. Non-linear control organisation, responsive environments in industry and information technologies, and the mergence of the human and the machine; these relatively new concepts are still evolving, and as such will serve to further transform the city, and the architectural theory and practice that creates it. Perhaps, the main task facing architecture in the ‘cybernetic age’ is to accommodate this doctrine through the adaptation of existing urban infrastructures, whilst simultaneously limiting the negative by-products of societal fragmentation and cultural triviality. The traditional dynamics of the city have been irreversibly altered by the integration of cybernetic principles into the fields of design, production and information, particularly when coupled with the increasingly pervasive new digitised ‘global network culture’ we are witnessing. The future prospect of a widespread new ‘cybernetic urbanism’ is a realistic possibility indeed.