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New York’s Festival of Ideas For A New City, With A Keynote by Jaron Lanier.

Ellen Pearlman

“Festival of Ideas For A New City” organized by the New Museum, The Architectural League, The Bowery Poetry Club, C-Lab, Columbia University Center for Architecture, Cooper Union, The Drawing Center, NYU Wagner, PARC Foundation, Storefront for Art and Architecture, and the Swiss Institute blossomed like spring in New York City from May 4 – 8th, setting out to “harness the power of the creative community to imagine the future city and explore the ideas destined to shape it.”

Keynotes addressing the issues were architect Rem Koolhaas, virtual reality inventor Jaron Lanier, and former President of the National University of Columbia, and former Mayor of Bogota, Antanas Mockus. A StreetFest  set up along the Bowery with over 100 local grassroots organizations and small businesses “presenting model practices and products in a unique environment.”  Over 100 projects, events, performances and walking tours expanded on the Festival’s themes.

Rem Koolhaas with OMA and The New Museum showcased CRONOCAOS, an exhibit  examining the growing “empire” of preservation and destruction  and the consequences of how we build, rebuild and remember. What is the role of preservation on the art world? As larger and larger spaces are repurposed for art  from industrial spaces they focus on the “apocalyptic sublime,” mimicking Hollywood and B movies. Oddly enough Koolhaas noted, this increase in preservation closely parallels the rise of Wall Street and tourism.

exhibit examining the growing "empire" of preservation and destruction and the consequences of how we build, rebuild and remember

There were panels on “The Heterogeneous City,” “The Networked City,” “The Reconfigured City,” and “The Sustainable City.” At night  curator Anna Muessig’s Flash:Light Nuit Blanche event included murals along the Bowery, art projections on Nolita and Lower East Side buildings, and music and performances including projects on the facade of the New Museum and St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Little Italy. There was also a 3D video installation Civilization reinterpreting Dante’s Diving comedy.

Anna Muessig's Flash:Light Nuit Blanche
Anna Muessig’s Flash:Light Nuit Blanche
Olek at the Festival of Ideas 2011
Olek at the Festival of Ideas 2011. Photo by G. Art by Olek

Jaron Lanier’s Keynote address on “The Networked City” at the Great Hall at Cooper Union reiterated many of the themes in his new book, “You Are Not A Gadget.” Not one to follow any set path, Lanier began his talk by playing a Laoitian “Ban Lao” (Ban Bang Sai Kai) bamboo wood pipe. He declared the simple reed flute was one of the first holders of digital information, even older than the abacus, because each reed object and note is turned on and off just like a series of digital 0’s and 1’s. The Ban Lao, traded across the Silk Route was noticed by the Greeks and Romans, and influenced the development of the pipe organ. The pipe organ was automated and turned into a player piano, a programmable loom, and finally became the origins of Charles Babbage’s computer.

Computers have gotten better Lanier explained, processing more and more bits, but humans still have more precise acuity at  the level of quantum physics. They can respond to just one photon. He then veered off topic discussing the first computer scientist Alan Turing who used computers to crack codes during World War II. Persecuted for being gay, he was injected by authorities with female hormones which gave him breasts and made him suicidal.  Just like Snow White, he killed himself by eating a poisoned apple.

He then veered back on track saying using computers as metaphors to the human condition is an irrelevant, outdated metaphor. The brain is not a CPU, and eyes and ears are not USBs. A better metaphor is thinking of the head as a spy submarine performing spy missions. You are constantly moving your head  seeking out data, not passively seeing it. Your visual system is sensitive to minute differences. A musical instrument is an additional instrument to the sensory motor loop that makes perception possible. Can we build digital tools that are as sensitive as we are? This, he noted, was one of the key questions now facing computer scientists.

Jaron Lanier, Keynote speaker for “The Networked City” at the Great Hall at Cooper Union. Festival of Ideas 2011.
Jaron Lanier, Keynote speaker for “The Networked City” at the Great Hall at Cooper Union. Festival of Ideas 2011.

New technologies are usually developed to become weapons. But many important inventions were first developed for music. Musical bows existed before arrows, and guns developed from the casting of metal bells. Even Hewlett Packard’s first object was a musical synthesizer. Music is a driver with innovation taking place around making sounds.

In order to make his lecture relevant to the “Networked City” theme of the festival, Lanier discussed his favourite thing about New York City, that the same sense of acuity as applied to musical instruments also applies to personal interactions. More diversity means you have more chance of connecting with someone who will change your life. The fates of people in New York are guided by their activities. Its important that the fates concern an extra world of human to human contact.

In such a huge network context people are sensitive to subtle motions in each other, and can identify subconscious communication we don’t really know about. Contrast that to sound networking, where digital music does not give you the subtle minute accuracy of acoustic sound. People who only communicate virtually are spinning their wheels in place. When we connect to each other through digital representations we lose some form of expression.

Lanier proselytized for the necessity of the “head and the heart”, insisted technology needs to bring better jobs to society than the ones they are destroying.  The basic social contract he said was turned back 11 years ago when advertising became the new way to get information. Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google was the one who started it.  Because digital technology is cheaper, cheaper just gives this stuff away for advertising. But, when you take the products of people’s hearts and minds, such as their music and literature, and give them away for free this becomes a problem.  When you put effort into a promotion on line  you get the illusion of benefits, but you actually lose relative advantage. This is because the true customers of a social networking site like Facebook is not you, you are actually the product of Facebook.  You are sold and the customer pays to influence events.  This is the difference between overt and covert information with Lanier stating, “The official business of computation is advertising.” At some point though, there is nothing to advertise. If cars can drive themselves, what happens to truck drivers? Or if 3D machines make fabrications they make manufacturing obsolete.

The Japanese are creating elder care robots. We are making ourselves unemployed. The fashion  of making everything free leads us down a path from a city of dreams to a cry of despair. We have to figure out a way to change our relationship to information technology, instead of chasing after users and followers and making more money. Ending his lecture he declared, “We must humanize digital architecture – We must see beyond fads.”  And then he played a little ditty on dual Gypsy flutes.