The new normal: how to untangle it

9 points on Strelka’s educational programme 2017

Benjamin H. Bratton is a sociologist, media and design theorist, digital expert and author of The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. He is Associate Professor of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego. Below you find his talking points regarding the new theme for Strelka’s educational programme.


‘The new normal’ forms a deliberate contrast to the notion of hybrid urbanism which Strelka students were exploring in 2015/2016. When new developments emerge, we tend to explain them as a hybrid of things already known to us, but in long term we should admit it is in fact something new and deal with it respectively. In order to develop the future, we need to catch up with the present and describe it. ITis now ahead of us, in a certain way. We have these technologies, but we have not conceptualized them yet, we do not know what they are for quite yet. Cities are our civilization’s fundamental technology. Similar to the theory of The Stack, now it is high time to describe IT and the city as one entity, not any longer as a combination of two different phenomena.


Certain changes and developments in urban culture create confusion, partially because we do not have a name for them. Developing a vocabulary to name and define the new normal is an essential task to be undertaken. Such a vocabulary for ‘the new normal’ in urbanism is meant to describe the contemporary condition in general, but it is in a city where changes occur, where the new is revealed and adopted first, where all things come together. Strelka is, among its other appearances, a school of thought, and so it’s only logical that its students and staff will be looking to establish a new vocabulary and a new language for the new urban reality.


Tools like the telescope or the microscope allowed people to see things they could not see before. Bratton says that today the new tools of the IT era – big data analysis and big data visualization via multiple apps. Together with cultural analytics they let us find patterns we could not find before. The statistical norm, the median is not necessarily the most important thing in defining the normal: there is not just one version of normal. What is important is seeing patterns. So part of our curriculum for the new year will be looking for and at these new patterns. While doing that, we will need to remember that our intuition about how things work is often not true and it is not unlikely we will obtain rather unexpected results.


One of the crucial aspects that needs to be researched is why certain groups of people – and which – are excluded from the ‘new normal’ in one way or another. On what terms will we be including in each other’s worlds, or not? Are fences keeping us in or out? Who decides?


While researching IT and its connection to cities, we will be placing an emphasis on senses and on how machines can change the way we perceive the world. We will be working with biosensing, 3D-scanning, virtual reality and augmented reality, studying how human and machines’ sensory systems ‘read’ the world and make sense of it in a new way. At stake is how we sense the city and how the city senses us, and itself.


We humans evolved along with our tools, and now we are physically merging with the information technologies we have invented. So part of Strelka students’ challenge will be finding where the boundary lies between human and non-human, and how they mix. This division is far not as clear as we used to think. Maybe we will find out that is okay. Or maybe what we want to discover is not how to fix that, but how to understand ourselves in relation to those things. Say, when you have artificial intelligence widely distributed in a city, how does it change the very definition of intelligence? It turns out it does, and AI is not just about us teaching machines how to think, but about machines that think, teaching us a bigger idea of what thinking is.


In the past, all meaningful information was carefully researched, processed and then stored in books which were in turn stored in libraries – and buildings, universities and societies were built on the notion that information is hard to access, even sacred. Now we have the opposite problem: there is more information and more data about the world than we can possibly handle. That is why we need interpretive prosthetics like data visualization and statistics. We need a summary of a summary of a summary before we can merely begin to make sense of any information we will receive as an answer to any question we ask. That is a fundamental shift.


It is largely agreed that we now live in the anthropocene, a new era defined by a fundamental geological and ecological impact of humanity on Earth and all the other species. It turned out that even seemingly intangible human actions may entail a carbon footprint. It will take a long time before we get to fully process and understand all the implications of this shift, of the fact that our culture is geological and ecology is cultural, but the earlier we start working in this direction, the better. At stake is what it means to be human, and what kind of world may or may not sustain us.


Technologies evolve exponentially and change what must count as design expertise. As we rely on machines excelling in many crafts, the real work for architects, designers and some other specialists now belongs to the realm of ideas, values and decision-making. The mix of design expertise is going through a big shift that is actually very healthy. It allows us to switch from a particular division of labor as it had been established in the early XX century – think industrial design, graphic design, architectural design. Now we also have different tools and challenges, so it’s a different division of labor all together -- think A.I., robotics, IoT, Biotechnology. The definition of architect’s role in creating a building or a city today is open to new kinds of design practices. Some of that work may become automated or will be based on generally available tools. Then the real issue is what a project should be about and why do it that way. Answering those questions is hard, and no matter how good our tools are, it never gets any easier. 

More detailes about educational program can find here.

Text: Anna Shirokova