An Interview with Philippe Morel

 images via EZCT Architecture & Design Research

Philippe Morel is an architect and theorist, who cofounded EZCT Architecture & Design Research. Recently, I interviewed him over email about computation, internet data centers, and natural terrain:

Alessandro Bava: You outlined an urban theory that accounts for the internet as a powerful territorial/urban agent, could you expand on the idea of oceanic/porous urbanism?

Philippe Morel: I started to be interested in such an evolution of the world while working on my Master’s thesis from 2000 to 2002. The title, “Living in the Ice Age”, was coming from the fact that I considered the contemporary changes associated with the advent of computation not just as “another media-based revolution” but as a “geological” shift; a kind of a global earthquake produced by “computational drifts”, drifts that are opening a new age in human (post)history. I was speaking about a more extreme coldness than the one theorized by Andrea Branzi in the “Cold Metropolis”. The coldness of the liquid azote used for supercomputers cooling or sperm cryopreservation as well as the coldness of extreme abstractions produced by computational processes and formal languages. In fact the freezing of any kind of social life, and a freezing that is by the way asking as much energy to us as it does in air conditioning systems! In the introduction of my thesis then, I wrote that “what our civilization gave birth to after unreasonable efforts is a new kind of compound, something like the summation of the dynamite or nuclear energy power, of the intrinsic capacities of the human brain for conceptual abstraction, of the raw power of the computers for calculation and of the sensory performances of the human body.” I added that “my work would only be about trying to unveil the genesis of such a compound”. Actually it is still about that: establishing the “history” and theory of this new man made Ice Age.

I am calling this theory “Computationalism”. It has nothing to do with any other “-ism” that we experienced in the XX century, including the most recent ones. It is not about art, style, vanguards, etc. It is about the replacement of Rationalism and the next five hundred years. In Computationalism, the raw power of computers and the “constructive” power of the algorithms come on top of everything. Quantity and quality are always associated, as it is the case with algorithmic. The computer is the new petroleum, that was both a source of energy - raw power - and a resource for chemical engineering – a complex raw material with a strong “constructive” potential, and as petroleum it produces its own geopolitics. At the moment, for example, companies like Facebook or Google are building datacenters as close as possible to the north-pole for a better and cheaper cooling. Google is also patenting floating platforms drifting on the oceans, producing their own electricity and relocating according to the constantly changing topology of the global network… Computer scientists are using methods and mathematical tools coming from natural sciences in order to catch the complex and non-deterministic nature of massive computational phenomena, and material scientists build up new materials out of atoms. Therefore, Computationalism is a new Neolithic-like anthropological bifurcation. It is a new state of the Matter, a new State of the Machine, a new State of Knowledge, all asking for a specific theory that I outlined, within the context of Integral Capitalism, as “Biocapitalism”, “Technocapitalism” and “Infocapitalism”. Computationalism is not a paradigm shift within western rationalism but a drift out of Rationalism. Rationalism, that destroyed itself thanks to its own knowledge and tools, is now replaced by Computationalism. That one is the social context that corresponds to the realization of a century old prediction by Nietzsche who stated that “the scientific man is the ulterior development of the artistic man”. All the political models like western Politics which is by essence based on the Ratio, are failing. They are failing because no human mind can deal with the complexity of our technological societies. As it was demonstrated by Hayek and a couple of other theoreticians, the limits of politics are epistemological, they are defined in any western society by the state of its knowledge. Search engine algorithms replaced librarians; it would be more than logical and necessary to see them replace traditional politics as well.

In any case it is very difficult to have a clear understanding of something as radical as the end of Rationalism. It is as difficult for us to understand a world full of abstract computation as it is for a locally behaving ant to be aware of the curvature of the surface of the earth.


AB: With the popularization of free software like SketchUp, Grasshopper and Processing, architecture is increasingly being produced by a huge number of non-professional prosumers who rewrite the discipline's rules based on online community opinions and attention parameters. Does architecture (like journalism, perhaps) have a problem of authorship or authority today?

PM: I slightly disagree on that since most of the people who are really producing architecture in today’s world are architects. They graduated as architects or consider themselves architects. And the ones who are not architects, being either developers or regular people building their own shelters and homes, are not more influenced by new software as they are by standard materials produced by the building industry. Therefore, if we consider that third parties actors are architecture producers, we should simply say that architecture has always been “produced” by such actors. Nevertheless, you might be right on another level when comparing the crisis of architecture and the one of journalism. Like personal secretaries rendered obsolete by Word and Excel, journalism is made unnecessary by a state of transparent information. That is why the people who are now considered as good journalist are not classical ones but hackers like Julian Assange. They are simply making the information transparent. They don’t go into interpretation and romance. This is the first half of my answer on authorship.

The second half has to deal with a deeper root for the crisis of journalism, architecture or art. It was envisioned by L’Isle-Adam one hundred and thirty years ago when he stated that the machine is the replacement of multiple intelligences by one great Intelligence. In art, unlike science (and architecture as well as journalism are closer to art than to any kind of science) the lack of such an Intelligence is not compensated by multiples intelligences. Thousands of Koolhaas followers are not equivalent to one Rem (should I say that it is worse than no follower). Art is not about quantity, neither is architecture as soon as you address the issue of authorship. Historically, this problem was solved by the very nature of vernacular architecture, which is about sharing common rules and cultural values. Today these rules and values defining a common visual or non-visual language have to be found within iPad and Facebook applications. Twenty or thirty years ago, a “Build your own Le Corbusier House” application wouldn’t have been as a good architect as a Le Corbusier pupil, but today such an application would probably provide a better architecture. Against all evidence provided by the state of architecture in European suburbs, people still believe that architecture produced by isolated architects according to “cultural values” are better than something a computer would do… It is deeply wrong. It is something that Russian constructivists and people like Branzi well understood. To a certain extend it is also understood by the “FabLab-based” approaches, but most of them will fail because of their political romanticism. Ultimately, the crisis of authorship is related to our lack of understanding of the nature of technology, and this is why architectural intelligence is about producing new technology-based rules and not about isolated buildings that identify themselves with the latest formal tendencies. Architecture is about producing new concepts of construction (like the Domino house) as computer science is about producing new concepts of computation (quantum computing, reversible computing, etc.). We must not confuse what happens inside a computer chip with the design of laptop computers.

AB: You defined computation as a social discourse. Could you please explain what do you mean by that?

PM: I mentioned this idea of computation as a social discourse already, but let me go a bit further. In the past, when the French government was introducing the metric system of measurement and the “Mètre étalon” those evolution were heavily associated to a certain idea of “distributing justice throughout the country”. Thanks to these universal measurement apparatus even analphabet people could make reasonably fair transactions. Today, thanks to Wikipedia, even people having a poor access to education can discover and learn amazing things. I am not idealizing such a platform but you cannot underestimate what it represents. Because technology always has non-technological consequences any discourse dealing with technology is intrinsically a social discourse. This is what I mean by saying that computation is a social discourse.

On one side on which non-scientists have no influence, computation is about very abstract scientific knowledge, and on the other side it is about everyday life. This seems so obvious to all of us that we usually don’t spend any time on that…But we should. Indeed, such a distinction is necessary because it is associated with another one between technology as knowledge and technology as machines. As knowledge, technology is changing multiple things but does not concern everybody. Take the example of the effects of PCs on education. Not all of the people spend their time in studying. Students do, as well as scientist and scholars. But as general purpose machines, computers are associated with productivity gains and ultimately with the concept of labor.

Labor concerns more or less everybody. On one side technology is perceived as a certain kind of progress, allowing for example more and more scientific discoveries, while on the other side it is perceived as harmful, being the ultimate job killing feature produced by capitalism. Both are true, but while more and more people think that there is no way to make these two parallel co-evolutions work together, I believe that we should keep thinking that it is possible. Therefore we should produce the right theory for that, based on the study of the strongest arguments coming from the proponents of anti-technological movements. One of them, Ted Kaczynski, believes that there is no way to think of better uses of our technological knowledge since ultimately the industrial society is destroying everything including the nature itself. On many points he is right and the only argument that we can oppose is the one of a technological society that would have absolutely nothing to do with the actual concept of work and nothing to do as well with our still machine-oriented postindustrial society. Nevertheless, if we cannot produce more convincing arguments in favor of such a society than the existing ones, either rational anti-technological thinkers or obscurantist movements will keep having more and more followers. The problem we have to face is related to the fact that technology became a religion to which less and less people adhere. Either because they are tired of smart mobs like gadgets, or because they cannot deal with the pace of evolution of knowledge, or because they are not interested in the kind of logic-mathematical knowledge that is intrinsically related to the contemporary technologies, or because they think that having good computers is not enough to compensate the lack of fresh air and water. At the moment, the way our society is dealing with the issue of technology is very much similar to the way we were dealing with the new possibilities offered by technics in Versailles or Saint-Petersburg. We all know that some people came up soon with very different applications in mind…Kinds of applications that today are neither proposed by right-wing affiliated thinkers, who want to put people back on assembly lines for producing stupid “ecological” cars, nor by left-wing affiliated philosophers who want them scripting web marketing applications… In fact, instead of developing moralistic critiques of the most advanced phenomena associated with the power of computation, like algorithmic trading, in favor of social practices of which the only difference is that they are as associated with an older version of capitalism, we should learn from them. We should ask ourselves if trading is not a realization of Nietzsche’s prediction asserting that “one day we will practice the buying and selling as a luxury of our sensibility”. We should question ourselves about the potential of new concepts of labor much closer to the conceptual idea of labor of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol than to the productive labor of computer literate Multitudes. This leads me to answer as a temporary conclusion the following important question you first asked me in a separate list, about the relationship between technology, work and leisure.

AB: In the 60s, Italian Operaist theorists were preoccupied with the advent of computers in manufacture and production at large. Many were in favour, as they saw computers as liberating the worker from production alienation therefore implementing freetime and allowing a sort of computer enabled "refusal to work," but we see that nowadays computers and internet have eliminated the very idea of free-time. What do you think of that?

PM: This is something I addressed in The Integral Capitalism by quoting O. Spengler but most of all by bringing back the attention on the fact that Adorno himself, a known opponent to Spengler’s philosophy, understood the relation between technology, work and knowledge as a fundamental problem. In his book Man and Technics, Spengler wrote that "It is not true that human technics saves labor. For it is an essential characteristic of the personal and modifiable technics of man, in contrast to genustechnics, that every discovery contains the possibility and NECESSITY of new discoveries, every fulfilled wish awakens a thousand more, every triumph over Nature incites to yet others. The spirit of this beast of prey is incessantly greedy, its will is never appeased: such is the curse that is attached to this kind of life, but herein is also the greatness inherent in its destiny” As I mentioned before with the example of trading, if you want to address the relationship between society and technology in a creative way you cannot keep thinking within old categories. You need to conceptualize an inversion of many things. Instead of treating the computer as a traditional machine saving labor you need to treat him as an ever expending block of both abstract knowledge and concrete physical (nanoscale) constructions, calling for more and more discoveries; much like mathematics, physics, chemistry or medicine. By doing so, you avoid short view understandings of the nature of technology and you realize that there is no reasonably attractive technological future in which technology would be something else than a sole knowledge, this knowledge being constantly its own end.

The major problem we are facing today, that explains also why capitalism is so integral, is that except for a couple of fields in pure mathematics, new discoveries in ANY branch of knowledge are determined by technology and then by money. This alliance is so radical, the complexity of the technologies is so great and the necessary investments are so immense that these parameters alone are almost completely defining the contemporary geopolitics. More than ever, the natural economic context for technology and therefore for knowledge, is capitalism. Technologies are becoming natural, capitalism as well. This means that the only real (non-cosmetic) critique of capitalism today are the ones that contest its technologies and its knowledge (and the other way around). It is the case for example with the radical religious movements I evoked or with T. Kaczynski who understood that technology is the most important contemporary Gordian Knot. This is by the way the reason why he stated that the next revolution would not be political. I agree with that. Whatever might happen, revolution or radical evolutions, politics will be a minor parameter. As for free time that in fact always brings us back to its opposite defined by capitalist people – labor –, politics always brings us back to the “revolution bourgeoise” that was a long time ago associated with the Enlightenment and that is now in most cases a harmful association of money and technology. As for the critique of free time that in fact is as necessary to the critique of capitalism as the critique of labor, a real critique of knowledge is as necessary to the critique of technology as a critique of machines. As far as I know no such critique do really exist in contemporary architectural theory.