Chris Anderson proclaimed the end of theory five years ago, and partially he was right. In The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete, the editor in chief of Wired magazine describes cloud computing and the rise of the Petabyte Age as not only a logistical question of information storage—networked online clusters versus localized storage in physical data centers—but also a pervasive influence on our relationship to knowledge.1 For in the way we classify things bears a profound impact on our social, political, intellectual and cultural constructs. With the cloud, information is no longer tethered to the archive, the library or even the organization of complex three dimensional classification systems. Instead, it renders an order of “dimensionally agnostic statistics.”2 The cloud necessitates an entirely different way of understanding the world, one that requires us to reconsider the idea that data can be visualized in its totality. Growing out of the Google model that detects correlations through applied mathematics rather than through context, the cloud ranks fractional connections above holistic perceptions of phenomena. As an embodiment and representation of change and self-organization, the temporal space of the cloud grows, crystallizes and dissolves.
What is vital about the cloud is the absorption and collection of data crystallized within a region, rather than its general contextual interpretation. Meaning is not essential to the cloud. Instead, the cloud evokes localized data collection and the fractional correlations between its bits and pieces. In a world where complexity can no longer be decoded systematically, the cloud is a byproduct of incidental accretion—it defies any precise definition of form and representation. It is impossible to map or draw the cloud, as there is no tectonic control over its formation. In this sense, it is our contemporary obligation to translate the emerging ecology of the cloud.
The cloud, nevertheless, is no longer just a giant hoard of digital data detached from physical reality. It materializes in lumps, heaps, aggregations, gyres, and swarms. While these assemblages certainly defy identifiable representational formats, they are not entirely without characteristics. One such example is what scientists today call the “plastic soup,” famously known as the Great Pacific Garbage Gyre. Plastic soup is a moving island of coagulated pelagic plastics, debris, and chemical sludge trapped in the current of the Pacific Ocean. It is a product, or rather a by-product, of social reality beyond our perception of urban daily life. These emergent islands force us to take a deeper look at the geochemical affinities between capital and excrement. Political theorist Jane Bennet describes the soup as the pathology of capitalist production3 —a hoard of things from the micro scale of a compulsive individual collector to the telluric scale of a macro landscape.
If this hoard is an unplanned byproduct effect of an insidious coincidence, assisted by the conjoinment of thermoplastic polymers with oceanic currents; and if it so happened to congeal into an unintentional fractured island, we have also witnessed manufactured or planned physical manifestations of the cloud. What was once an immaterial aggregation of numbers is now “crystallized” in material form via the logistical storage systems of massive online corporations. Amazon’s enormous warehouses implement chaotic storage systems in which diverse objects swarm together in a monstrous blurry mass. Without organization by category or theme, the quantitative efficiency of “Chaotic Storage” places objects solely by barcode. Items are stored and retrieved in a chaotic hurricane of books, lawnmowers, rainboots, DVDs, footballs, coffee makers, you name it. Instead of creating thematic hierarchies and systematic organization categories, warehouse workers store goods wherever there is room. Everything is tagged numerically, scanned, and eventually selected by employees trained to navigate the depositories. Moreover, Amazon’s facilities, as well as those of other major online distributors, occupy an enormous surface area in exurban regions—so large that they are measured by laser straight-line devices in reference to the curvature of the earth, rather than the horizon.
What is the space generated by the digital analogs of physical objects? It is a massive, unidentified organism whose material constitution looks at first sight like a galaxy of randomly dispersed matter, coagulated non-homogeneously in certain regions. It abolishes any Cartesian format of representation and navigation. Beyond an emergent physical structure, the formation of this crystallized cloud produces new mental ecologies, which force new interrelationships between subjects and their surrounding environment. Golgi Bank is a depository of obsolete materials, growing inside an institution of monetary exchange. The objects are stored according to their date of obsolescence and their formal attributes in terms of space packing. Hsieh imagined a stereographic navigational system for the employees to move through the space. Such bizarre crystallizations require a special name. They depict phenomena novel in materialization and ontology, as well as organization. Philosopher and critical theorist Timothy Morton coined the term “hyperobject” to describe objects so massively distributed in time and space that they transcend localization.4 Like other hyperobjects that surpass spatiotemporal specificity—including global warming, Styrofoam, and radioactive plutonium—this chaotic storage system will outlive us. It will also extensively rupture the complex interrelationship between subject and environment. As an emergent type of artificial nature, the crystallized cloud is not in the environment; it is an environment.height=”478
The critical question is, what new human subject does this crystallized cloud construct? The only way to navigate through the unimaginable carcass of consolidated stuff is relative to oneself. In chaotic storage, there is no archive, and no 3D complex structure to cognitively comprehend as a system. There is no space of networks and flows with connections between individual units. There is only a hyperobject, which is constantly changing. It eludes understanding, and fundamentally alters our spatial mode of existence. We are lost unless we use ourselves as the point of origin to navigate. The subject enters a biotic de-synthesis with its surroundings, or as French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux would say, a relational loss with context.5 The crystallized cloud necessitates an omni-direction mode of navigation, which in turn requires a spherical stereographic projection system with no reference to the horizon. In order to navigate the subject must use themselves as parameters, as well as polar coordinates with vectors and distances, rather than Cartesian coordinates. In this sense the crystallized Amazon cloud renders correlationism, or the need for embeddedness in the world and the ecosystem, obsolete.
To conclude, I will paraphrase the opening statement: “the Data Deluge has precipitated the end of theory.” So proclaimed Chris Anderson in 2008, and partially he was wrong. The cloud, now crystallized, not only generates an a-hierarchical, a-topological organizational confluence of knowledge, but also generates a new human subject detached from its surrounding context. While the compact images of the Vitruvian Man or Le Corbusier’s Modulor have historically indicated a passage from the cosmos to modernist abstract space, and while the human subject of the postwar period bespeaks a technologically mediated feedback ecology, the human subject of the “crystallized cloud” is different. In the course of omnidirectional self-referential navigation, the subject is entrapped in a condition of turmoil and breaks off any environmental interaction by sealing its being, which then compulsively and reflexively re-synthesizes spatial fragments in anomalous combinations. This closure corresponds to an ontogenetic and phylogenetic stage of development (the stage of the “protopsyche”) at which the organism has control over nothing but itself, and can bring about only somatic changes. When the subject enters this condition, it functions like an adhoc closed system denying any environmental input, as well as discharging output. In some ways, it becomes a self-referential reality.
This cloud would not like to conclude itself. Instead, the intention is to open a discussion and leave open questions. At the center of this discourse lies the question: How does the cloud affect our relationship to knowledge? The permeation of organizational tools in our discipline is not innocent. It is not merely about facilitating and managing knowledge. It transforms the nature of design, with no return. Is it not critical that we reconsider our classification systems and their affects within architectural discourses? Stay tuned.
- 1. Anderson, Chris. “The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete.” Wired 16:07 (June 23, 2008). Accessed March 10, 2009. http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/magazine/16-07/pb_theory. ^
- 2. Anderson ^
- 3. Bennet, Jane. “Powers of the Hoard: Further Notes on Material Agency” in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. (Washington, DC: Oliphaunt Books, 2012): 237-272. ^
- 4. Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010): 130. ^
- 5. Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude: An Essay On The Necessity Of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier (Continuum, 2008). ^
Lydia Kallipoliti is an architect, engineer and scholar holding a PhD from Princeton University and a SMArchS from MIT. She is an assistant professor at Syracuse University, and the founder of EcoRedux, an innovative online open–source resource and exhibition documenting the history of ecological experimentation. She is also the editor of an issue of Architectural Design magazine. Kallipoliti’s research focuses on the intersection of cybernetic and ecological theories. www.anacycle.com