Analog Cheese, Virtual Reality, and Changing Architecture

Excerpts from an interview of Andrew Sempere conducted via email by José Filipe Pereira, Masters student at FAUP (Faculty of Architecture of the University of Porto.

Q: You wrote: “(…) our relationship with each other, to media and to our sense of place is changing as a result of our immersion in digital space.” Similar as the way you explain architecture as experience, casting aside the “material” and giving emphasis not to the technology behind interactivity but to the interaction in itself, do you think that with all the new 3d immerse virtual worlds makes sense that architects could start planning full digital experiences?

Yes, but not just 3d immersive virtual worlds, all “virtual worlds.” What I mean is that I think that even something boring and common place now (like email or the telephone) has created a kind of virtual space and changed our relationship to architecture.

We used to create custom buildings for performing certain tasks. The Johnson Wax building in the US (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the mid 1930s) for example, is designed on a style of work that is part of that time period: Management gets the offices around the edges, and the workers fill the middle “Great Workroom.”

This building would be inappropriate for today’s company, where even higher level executives probably type their own emails and reports rather than send them to the clerical staff in the middle of the building. Lower level workers are not even likely to be housed in the same building, and in many cases not even the same country. I think maybe today’s architecture for virtual work probably looks like a telephone center in Bangalore, with a coffee shop in NYC for the executive office.

I am curious what will become of all of the office spaces that we built in the 1960s and 70s in the US, I have a pet theory that a lot of them will be turned into residential space, which seems appropriate to me in the same way that we converted a lot of the turn of the century industrial buildings in the US into “lofts.” It also fits with the modernist “machine for living” idea which seems like a better interpretation of modernism than the corporate office spin the US got after WWII.

I should also say there is a difference between architecture for virtual worlds (which, at least in my experience, is largely about using “real life” architecture in a skeuomorphic fashion to encourage certain virtual behaviors), and the creation of a real life architecture that supports virtual interactions.

An example of the latter might be something as simple as creating an office to allow (or block) wifi signals, or creating a space for everyone to plug in their laptops or for visitors to charge their smartphones (something that will probably also become obsolete as we increase the battery life of these devices).

In any case, I think it’s an easy observation that in the US there’s been a general trend in corporations away from physicality. Finances are driving most of this, but we see (and have been seeing for a long time) employees working at home, or sharing temporary offices, or cubicles, even purchasing their own office equipment and logging in remotely via corporate networks. Something curious happens with this: the more that businesses push their employees NOT to be co-located, the more we find that there are certain tasks (Design is one) that are best done face-to-face. I think this is where things get interesting, because if I’m right we should see less “generic” office design, for example, and more design which is customized for certain types of tasks.

Of course all of this relates to so-called “knowledge workers” and management, and not to factory workers or surgeons or childcare or bus drivers or any of the many many other jobs and functions that exist that cannot be virtualized.

On the other hand, can gamification, the playable version we start to see of almost every real life task, be like theatre… a reason to experiences materialize in full scale, become a tool, be more than a gimmick and have a real use? Can games and the need of interactivity help technology be absorbed by the real and fused with architecture so together can “forge new traditions” and change the materialistic way academics and professionals tackle practice?

This is possible but it’s going to take a lot of careful work. Gamification has many meanings, and some of them are good and some of them are not-so-good. I’m afraid that most of the time when companies or organizations look to gamification they are trying to do two things: 1. “Trick” people into doing a boring or unrewarding job cheaply or for free or 2. Create an excuse for quantitative analysis in order to justify actions they wish to take (hiring and firing people based on scores, for example). This is not a tendency that we should encourage, and it’s not even something that’s ever going to work: people aren’t stupid, and frankly if I have a choice between spending my own money to play the latest Playstation title and getting paid a dollar an hour to play the “box moving game” for a shipping company, I’m going to chose Playstation.

For those people for whom the “box moving game” is the way they put food on the table, “gamifying” their job is at best annoying and at worst insulting and dehumanizing. I think this tendency to interpreting gaming this way comes from a completely confused understanding of the role of games and play in people’s lives, which is not to waste time at all. We have a lot of research on this: that games people enjoy are not easy, they’re hard, and they’re not dis-engaging but rather deeply engaging.

I am therefore not particularly in favor of “gamificiation” of the workplace, but I am very interested in two aspects of gaming and how they might change (or have already changed) the way we interact with each other: that is the social aspect of gameplay and the ability of gamers and gaming systems to convey extremely dense information in a user interface. The former is obvious to anyone who has spent time in a virtual world: socialization is of primary importance. Understanding this and understanding that socialization is not a “waste of time” but actually what drives business is a lesson that could be learned by corporations if they are serious about paying attention to the lessons learned in gaming. What is amazing about WoW for example, isn’t that a group of strangers would happily spend hours on a “useless” task because it “looks cool” but rather that a situation can be created where a group of people who don’t know each other will work cooperatively to the death to solve a problem. We should be looking very intently at that: what makes a narrative compelling enough to encourage that sort of cooperation? And I don’t want to trivialize human experience at all, but if there are situations in “real life” where we are experiencing the opposite, can we evaluate the narrative around the situation to see what is different or missing? Again I don’t want to trivialize, but truly sometimes all a group needs is a better story. The second, information complexity and density, is of great interest to me from a user experience and design perspective. How is it that some technologies seem incredibly difficult to use while others are simple, even if the tasks being performed are inversely complex. Put more specifically: why is it that my mom has no trouble operating a car safely, but she still has some trouble using a computer? It’s not that my mom (or anyone’s mom) is stupid. it’s not that the technology is new (In fact her car is a lot newer than the desktop interface that was invented int the 1970s). The answer is in the design of things, the metaphors implied by the designers and in the stakes: losing a file is generally a lot less dangerous than losing control of your vehicle.

So the average office job will probably never be as complex as flying an aircraft or even as complex as driving, but we do have a lot more information to contend with on a daily basis. A lot of work has been spent on techniques for “coping” with this information flow, but I’d like to see some design work on handling it directly through better design.

I know that, as you say “The exploration has just begun, and many questions remain around what precisely occurs when we treat physical space as interface”, but can you give me a glimpse of a future scenario, even if utopian, of an experience you’d like to create?

I love technology: I’m a total nerd. I grew up playing video games and watching science fiction films. I also love the natural world, hiking, swimming, animals and biology and physical things. There was a time when these things seemed contradictory, mostly because interacting with computers required special environmental conditions. This has already changed radically. When I first started using computers there was no Internet for the general public, but there were BBSes, and a dialup modem connection was the best thing you could have. As a result the decision of where to put the computer had everything to do with where the telephone connection was wired. Computers were universally big and heavy, and most of them were loud, so that also all came into play.You needed a “computer space” where you wouldn’t bother other people, where you could connect to the outlet and the phone line. Direct sunlight usually caused too much glare on the screen. Disks were fragile and needed to be kept away from dust. A spilled glass of water could destroy a few thousand dollars worth of equipment in a few seconds, so basically what all of this added up to was that if you wanted to use a computer you needed to put yourself in an environment that made sense for the machine (not for you). In the late 1980s, Xerox PARC researcher Mark Weiser coined the term ubiquitous computing (or ubicomp) and outlined its general principles, suggesting that the computer act as a “quiet invisible servant” and that technology should “recede calmly into the background of our lives.”

I try hard not to do this, but these days I could take my macbook into bed with me, work for 4 hours on my email and not disturb the person sleeping next to me with any sound louder than typing and without needing a phone line or a power cable. This is amazing.

So my utopian vision is something like what Weiser described: I would like a world in which technology is so completely integrated into our environment that it recedes into the background and we stop noticing it, and start talking about what it is doing rather than what it looks like. As someone interested in the social role of technology, part of me still holds tight to the utopian science fiction vision of the internet age that fueled my head when I was a teenager: Mondo 2000, William Gibson and Neil Stephenson novels: some of them painted a bleak vision, but the undercurrent was always that this great network and all this knowledge could connect all these brains together to help us make a better future in spite of forces arrayed against that.

Fortunately I’m not as naive as I was when I was fifteen. Humans are way more complex than fiction, but I still think connecting people to each other can have an amazing effect. Part of me still sees the world this way: technology can be used for good or for evil. My hope is that professional architects, designers and engineers will embrace this and understand themselves as more than functionaries or workers for hire. When an architect puts a building into a community, they are changing the fabric of that community. When a designer releases an interface, they are making someone’s life easier (or harder) than before. These are small things but collectively the change our quality of life. I don’t know exactly what it means to treat architecture as interface, but that’s why I think the research is important: someone is going to start integrating technology into our buildings and infrastructure, so others of us need to try and figure out what this means and ideally develop some “best practices.” If possible we can make a concerted effort to write a better story than what has come before, where we can concentrate on relating to each other and not our stuff.

Do you think that in the future, technology will present us a virtual world so unlimited in freedom that it’s man’s destiny to become progressively disconnected from the body? Much like Matrix pods, will architecture be in the mind, only dependent on the interface and the body we have at the moment of that experience? We have to have flying cars somehow! :)

No. I think it’s a very popular idea, and very tempting for some people, but I don’t think it will ever happen. I think a lot of this line of thinking (the post-humanism of Stelarc and the Ray Kurzweil idea of the singularity) are really very old and very religious ideas: they rely on the notion that the spirit/mind is “godlike” and separate from the “animal” body. This idea doesn’t make sense to me. Humans are sensual creatures, we like touching and feeling and tasting and being in places.

The Matrix idea counters my objection by proposing it might be possible to create a fake reality so immersive that one cannot tell the difference. I don’t think this will ever be true, but folks are welcome to try it, and I’ll probably be first in line to see the experiments. I’m interested in the attempts, but I don’t think fake anything will ever be as good the real thing. But there is a curious side effect of the pursuit: We figure out where the “good enough” line is, and we move it around, and we develop new kinds of legitimate synthetic experience. This is super interesting. As a silly example, I really like cheese. I also really like fake cheese, analog cheese… it’s delicious. Plenty of people would disagree, but it’s a new experience wrought entirely of technology: Velveeta doesn’t come from a cow. More importantly, the existence of this cheese analog doesn’t somehow make real cheese less real: I didn’t say I liked it better than real cheese, I would never advocate the abolishment of milk products. It’s not comparable, it’s something new!

I’m talking about this because I think there’s an obsession in the virtual world community around creating a “real” experience but it’s totally unnecessary. We already have, and have had for ages, deeply compelling and immersive virtual experiences. People can get lost for hours inside a text-based virtual world with nothing to “look at” other than monochrome text in a chat window. In spite of the fact that many of the couples I know met online, some people still find it grotesque or strange that people have emotional or romantic and sexual relationships “through a computer.” I don’t think this is weird at all though, I think it’s amazing. There’s an astounding human trait: that we can experience very intense things without access to our senses. I believe this is possible because we are sensual. When we encounter an environment which is lacking in detail we draw on a deep “library” of real and imagined life experience to fill in the holes that are not part of the system as designed. We generate experience by virtue of our focus and engagement, we generate our own virtual realities, and this only works because we have bodies and constraints from which to imagine. So no, I don’t think we’ll make the physical less important, I think the opposite: the better we get at virtual experiences, the more important the non-virtual will become, and along the way we will develop an entirely new and curious set of “analogs” that are worth experiencing and understanding.

PS Flying cars are awesome. Also jetpacks.