IoT, built environment and a hyperconnected world

the internet of things connects things to the internet, 

architecture connects people to the environment….

What is it that really frames, determines and influences our built environment? Since centuries we create – out of ‘nothing’ – a (semi-)permanent built structure out of natural and/or artificial materials; in the words of v.d.Laan: “we extract architectonical space as an emptiness out of natural space”.[1] It provides an artificial physical structure in an analogue – originally natural – environment, which – ultimately, when inhabited – facilitates a living space, creating lived space. Architecture thus has fulfilled its role, i.e. the defining and articulation of space, providing a social order, creating a static distinction between public space and private space. Is what we call ‘home’ the only adequate answer to our need for shelter and for our ‘right to be left alone’?

But; ”Architecture’, in the words of Virilio, ‘is more than an array of techniques designed to shelter us from any storm. It is an instrument of measure, a sum total of knowledge that, contending with the natural environment, becomes capable of organizing society’s time and space.” [2]

Increasing technological development and hybridisation puts pressure to this situation; the process of designing, ‘realizing’ and maintaining a building has become a digitalised process. Also; when, at the moment, some 80 objects per second are added to the Internet, increasing up to 250 objects per second by the year 2020 [3] our environment – i.e. the sum of natural and artificial structures and objects – will no longer be the same. Our environment becomes an interface; and how do we relate to/behave in an environment that is an ‘active’ one? We usually witness a dichotomy of public vs. private space; in private we can be ourselves; to be ready to act in public. If this difference is gone; what determines our privacy other then technology? “The IoT does not concern objects only; it is about the relations between everyday objects surrounding humans and humans themselves.” (Santucci, 2011)

When, in Feb. 2013, the EC’s Onlife Manifesto[4] (OM) was presented in Brussels and discussed more in-depth in July 2013 to discover the ‘blind spots’, it became obvious that this was to be a guiding document of contemporary value. Its subtitle – ‘Being Human in a Hyper-connected Era’ – promised a thorough research on what it meant to be ‘human’, given the fact that our world rapidly becomes a hybrid world. The OM states that ‘ the fact that the environment is pervaded by information flows and processes does not make it an omniscient/omnipotent environment. Rather, it calls for new forms of thinking and doing at multiple levels, in order to address such issues as ownership, responsibility, privacy and self-determination’ (OM, 3.2) It also concludes that ‘the distinction between public and private has often been grasped in spatial and oppositional terms’. (OM, 3.6)

A new form of thinking therefore could imply that this distinction may well be thought of as other than spatial. However, it is still ‘architecture’, i.e. the adaptation of space to human needs, that determines and shapes this spatial distinction. When Grosz states “Can architecture be thought, no longer as a whole, a complex unity, but as a set of and site for becomings of all kinds?” (Grosz.p.70), it seems it is the connotation to a physical appearance only that is questioned.

When the Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys, after more than 20 years, finished working on his ‘New Babylon’[5] in 1974, he could no longer imagine the inhabitant in his utopian environments. What initially was recognisable in the drawings as a human figure degenerated during the final years into a red blob; a vague remnant of an individual now incapable of dwelling. Should we disconnect utopic projects from their spatial/architectural connotation, the question remains whether we can envision any utopia without any (built) appearance. Could, e.g. ‘New Babylon’ or other parallel projects have succeeded if not grounded in its proposed environmental, architectural framework? If we think of ‘becoming’, can we think of a hyper-connected environment in which the ‘quality of life’, i.e. more than comfort only, will prevail?

We fail to translate the demand/need for housing in an era that is – and increasingly will be – determined by technological developments. Following Virilio’s statement; “we must learn again how to inhabit”, we should reflect on what it is that determines and shapes our lived (private) space. Is the paradigm shift the conclusion that, in a technological-framed world we do no longer need a built environment; can we build upon other, more sophisticated forms of dwelling? Lanier: “ Picture this: It’s sometime later in the 21st. century, and you’re at the beach. (..) If the wind starts to blow, swarms of leaves turn out to be subtle bioengineered robots that harness that very wind to propel themselves into an emergent shelter that surrounds you.” (Lanier, 2013, p.9)

The Internet of Things evolved into an Internet of People and an Internet of Everything; a concept involving object as well as subject, ultimately being the hyper-connected environment as discussed in the Onlife Manifesto. In this, human values prevail; where the IoT touches upon our lived space it is not enough to conclude that this is about our comfort only. Our lived space needs an ontological shift from being a static physical structure to becoming an interface that facilitates much more than the traditional roof over our head. While imagining the future (and dismiss utopian views) we should be – positively – critical about upcoming technology as well as rethinking our build environment, e.g. architecture.

In a wonderful short film called ‘Kempinski’ [6], made by in 2007 Neil Beloufa, the local villagers in Mali, imagining the future, describe their relation with their built environment:

“We see the buildings like stars, they are superimposed with stars, we can only see the light. It is not like cement or, I don’t know, bricks. The buildings are in light form, there are no settled doors in it. So we enter where we want. We go out when we want and how we want. But that does not show.”

What is it that really frames, determines and influences our built environment?

[1] Laan, D. H. van der. (1983). Architectonic Space (p. 204). Brill Leiden.

[2] Virilio, P., Lost Dimension, Semiotexte, 2012. p.40 (orig. l’ Espace Critique, 1984)





martin pot

Rotterdam/Netherlands, Jan.2015

this article was published in Jan.2015 on Meet-IoT.A newsletter nr. 3