a compulsion

to grasp

the world

Reinhold Martin in conversation with W, C, G and LW. Recorded April 4th, 2014

W: Today we want to go over the problems of representation and the logics of control that are embedded in computation and Parametricism. One story we want to start off with is that of Jay Forrester and the idea of cybernetics. Mr. Forrester is a founder of the different theories of system dynamics and in 1969 he wrote Urban Dynamics.1 He got on a plane after meeting with the Club of Rome and diagramed what he thought to be a model of the world. Then came World Dynamics immediately after.2 We want to start there, with the thinking that went on about merging cybernetics with political theory and how the idea of control and the ability to create a steady state at the level of society were implicitly embedded within.

RM: Before we get to the dynamics and the crisis of American power in this era, which is really what this is, we should ask what is at stake. It seems to me that one of the things that is most evident is an attempt, a need, a compulsion to grasp the world somehow—to almost hold it in your hand. You know, this is a very old reflex. It’s as old as maps. It’s as old as globes.

W: Counting is another one you’ve mentioned as well...

RM: Well, yes to some extent… It’s as old as demographics, for example, in its different forms.

To be more specific, to grasp the world as a system comes into its own in the immediate post-war decades. Forrester’s work is a type of systems theory that is both technologically and epistemologically in a relatively mature phase. The history of cybernetics and systems theory is, to a large extent, bound up with this problem of grasping the world, as I tried to show in The Organizational Complex.3 It acquires an icon in the image of the earth seen from outer space, such as the “Blue Marble” photograph. This is sometimes said to inaugurate a phase in which suddenly humanity grasps itself, sees itself from the sky. I think this is the culmination or the apogee of a longer process. You could say that another signal technological moment is Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as in the early 1950’s, with the hydrogen bomb. In about ten years, the whole myth of scientific progress is demolished. That’s one side, while the camps and the Holocaust are the other side. This is part of a postwar context of anguish over technological systems out of control, producing mass death. Before the war—and architecture has this in spades - there was an intense investment in the notion of progress and the perceived capacities of new technology. You had this kind of paradox after the war of mass death and various forms of emancipation or modernization, et cetera. So, yes, the hubris, but also within that already is a kind of disability, a kind of inherent crisis. Built into it, perhaps in a kind of dialectic of modernization or modernity, are certainly the persistent hubristic, heroic, imperialistic attempts to grasp the world in order to manage it.

C: An idea that I’ve heard, quite ominously, is “the shock of the destruction of World War II” and this massive amount of death. I think that understanding and describing are key. In order to avoid such a traumatic event, we need to describe the world and understand how it devolved to this state. You were mentioning this model that Forrester drafted on the plane, when they took it back to the lab and simulated it, it showed that the world would self-destruct.

W: They projected a pretty immediate fall into economic decline, nuclear warfare…

C: Right. That marks a distinction between letting the world experience things as they come and being able to describe it and understand it in order to avoid such things. In order to describe, a prevalent line of thought was the need to quantify.

RM: Right, that gets us to parametrics. This is just a little historical sketch, but let’s continue to the other end of the story. In the 70’s, largely as a result of the Herman Kahns of the world—the futurists, futurologists, think tanks, and systems modelers who were constantly running scenarios and making these maps—were prophesying doomsday in order to acquire authority and, to some extent, manage the system. There is also a critical side to this. It’s not just these maniacal futurologists. What happened in the critical social sciences just a bit later, to a large extent in response to this monomaniacal drive, was the critique of totality.

This goes by many names, the most well-known of which is “postmodernism.” If you read Jean Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, you’ll see that it’s a critique of systems theory.4 Keep those stories in your head: that’s actually what he’s talking about. Forrester is at the far end of what Lyotard was critiquing. Again, it’s not just in the mad scientist version, but also the governmental, political science version. Lyotard doesn’t speak of numbers, but of narratives. He also has in mind Marxism and capital accumulation. All of this was representative of the master narratives of modernity: the stories of progress and teleology. If you think about these modelers, that’s what they’re doing, playing out master narratives. His response was the petit récits, the small narratives, which is one of the branches of postmodern theory. Now, vis-a-vis numbers, in this phase of modern technocracy in the West, the story is also about the UN, the World Bank, the Ford Foundation, the management of the global economy and of development. They’re running the numbers, too. As a result, you have ideas like the population explosion. That had a huge effect on urban planning. As Paul Edwards shows in The Closed World, this kind of modeling is parametric.5 It’s about minima and maxima. It’s if/then. This type of thinking and the technology associated with it, the feedback loops that it fetishizes, are all the basis for world-gaming, war-gaming, and the financial models of this systems universe. And it’s heterogeneous! I’m trying to emphasize this.

W: But that’s important to note, because then that proves that this is a tool set and a way of seeing, more-so than implicitly being…

RM: I want to understand these as something more than merely tools that can be used independent of an author or agent. In American public discourse, for example, this is the way in which technologies like guns are discussed. There’s one side that says: “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” That seems to me to be counterintuitive. In fact, there is something about, in this case, the weapon that predisposes the situation. We can talk about technology, instruments, and systems in different ways around this issue that don’t have to be linearly causal. It’s not simply the reversal either, where these things acquire an inevitable teleology, and no matter what there will be death and destruction because of these weapons. Although, they certainly—and it’s historically obvious—vastly increase the risk of massive damage. That’s the key word in this discourse: risk.

At some level, these things are interchangeable epistemologically. What they are all doing, in one way or other, is modeling a future, and they’re doing it with numbers. So what do you do? One response to the numbers is narratives, little stories. Numbers are not just numbers. There is history. There is ideology. That’s step one: to historicize the numbers, to situate and connect the numbers and the narratives.

One of the things that computers do, particularly as they have become so ubiquitous, is displace these narratives. They, as it were, naturalize the numbers. One of the inevitable contradictions of this type of modeling is a version of the old problem of the map and the territory. The map and the territory could never match. All possible variables could never be taken into account in a systems equation. At some profound level, you just don’t know. Not knowing is built into the equation in parentheses. It’s not so much x1, x2, x3, x4, the string of variables that play into the system. It’s the limit on this set of quantities—the bracket—that bears upon the historical process.

W: As distinct from this other historical…

RM: Right, or something else. When you play it out logically, it is fundamental. You must at some point limit the set in order to run the equation. Otherwise, you are simply reproducing the entire world as a computer.

W: We’re presenting Parametricism as a “belief” in this volume, which seems to be one of the more critical points: the belief in the ability to quantify everything.

RM: It’s not just postmodernist cultural critique that took this on, though that was certainly one important line. Again, think about it through the inherent limits of the set, even if there is a certain accuracy to the variables.

At some point you have to limit it, and you can’t account for everything. That itself can become mystical. There are unrepresentable things, uncountable things, and so on. The number one: this is one of the most mystical numbers in the world. I mean, talk about belief. What constitutes one?

There are various sets of theoretical and logical philosophies that deal with this in esoteric and scientific ways. This thing that is called Parametricism, whatever it is, is often designated as an alternative to a world-view that deals with words, text, and representation. So you have enumeration versus representation. Representation is inherently unreliable. We learned that from post-structuralism, postmodernism, etc. Enumeration, on the other hand, we can apparently count on.


This seems to me, on the face of it, to be untenable. Now, move number two or number three of those we are listing would be to inspect the instability of numbers and to consider countability and uncountability, not so much as ontological properties, but as functions of the system. Philosophers often do this. One could think of singularity, for example: a thing that is a set unto itself. It doesn’t belong in a set. It’s singular. It’s an event, to use the language of Deleuze or Badiou. One could also think about how the one, or two, or three, gets produced, meaning historically put into the world.

If you read chapter five or six of Utopia’s Ghost on mass customization, the chapter describes and analyzes the process of designing the headquarters of Union Carbide by Kevin Roche.6 The question is: who is the mass? It turns out that that the mass is divided and by definition structurally not one. In order for Union Carbide to run the numbers—early parametrics—they did user surveys. The doesn’t look like the kinds of “parametric” environments we’re seeing today, but in some sense it works like that, as individualized, mass customized office space designed around a limited set of parameters. Epistemologically, it’s all there. For that set to come into focus, for the kind of human who requires and responds to those kinds of input-output relationships, humanity itself has to be partitioned. Somebody actually has to die. In the case of Union Carbide, there was tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people who did die in some relationship to it. I’m talking about the gas leak in Bhopal that killed tens of thousands of people immediately and many others later, which became a massive international scandal. It was resolved mainly in favor of Union Carbide. The main function of the court case was to count the deaths and the injuries. How do you quantify this? Victims and their families were forced to make legal claims in an undetermined space—the juridical space that is under construction is itself quite ambiguous.

C: It’s actually interesting that you bring up the idea of the

courtroom, because it seems to me that the courtroom is one of the few places in society that is not subjugated to numbers in the same way…

RM: Really?

C: Yea, in the sense that we can talk about how someone has died. Did it happen by manslaughter or by premeditative murder? Yes, there are these degrees of murder, but it is still determined by a jury through discussion, conversation, and argument. That’s not to say that one dead body is not the same as another, but that there are more humanistic and circumstantial…

RM: Historical. We could say historical processes, right? Historical means society doing what society does.

C: The idea of the courtroom is that every case that is brought there has to be reevaluated each time.

RM: That’s the American system in principle. Maybe another way of saying it is that there is an historical or narrative element: stories need to be told. They need to be compared. Judgment is collective, ideally. Inherent in that, very much to your point, is a kind of agon—a contest or debate. The public sphere, whether it is a courtroom or the counting done for a census, is contested in many directions.

Think about a census: not everyone wants to be counted. You can understand why. And yet, to be counted is to be registered, to have papers, thus gaining access to whatever social welfare there may be available, as well as access to other benefits of the system. To put it bluntly, counting is a political act. There are different regimes, different spheres, in which that act works politically. There is no space—social, natural, or otherwise—in which there is absolute transparency and where numbers are merely and simply numbers, uncontestably so, even in the natural sciences. In fact, scientists are by definition totally circumspect about numbers. They never believe anything. The whole point of science is to prove that the number is wrong. Don’t simply take numbers for granted, then. Don’t exceed to the authority of numbers.

C: In your debate with Schumacher, you mentioned that in the evolution of how society thinks, normative laws have been replaced by the performativity of procedures. We were hoping that you could unpack those terms—normativity, and performativity of procedures.7

RM: I actually don’t remember the context in which that came up. What were we talking about?

C: It was in your introductory remarks after you brought up Lyotard and the term “computerized society,” to which you began speaking about normative laws of Euclidean geometry being replaced by computerized rule-based procedures.

RM: Oh yes. Well, to schematize very generally. The norm is a modern phenomenon. Think of something like Taylorism or early to mid-twentieth century graphic standards. The Modulor belongs in this general category—a kind of standardization and modularization that goes on all over the place. There are certain kinds of repetitive, iterative behaviors and figures that circulate in this sphere of normalization.

Meanwhile, rule-based procedures and algorithmic, feedback-driven activities emerge. The standards are still standards. They are not so much if/then statements, they just are. But the new, and more flexible, feedback driven norms (as shown, for instance, in John Harwood’s work on ergonomics), derive from new ways of classifying and diagramming the world in a variety of ways. This kind of technological performativity, the performativity of the norm and of normalization, operates according to feedback.

There is another notion of the performative that is part of Lyotard’s discourse (and that of many others): the speech act and the performativity of social roles. In other words, we enact gender roles and social status in a number of ways. Those enactments are coded, symbolized, and also situated so that they acquire force and meaning in different ways. If in the courtroom the judge says “quiet,” people obey, because the judge is in a position of power. The same goes, for example, for performative statements about architectural quality.

It’s very funny, I have to say. It’s been a long time since I had heard a student or a critic say, “That’s a good design. That’s a good building.” That’s something that you might think is a part of everyday speech in architecture. The more common concern, and tell me if I am being too reductive, is how is it done.

W: Yes and no.

RM: Tell me how you debate what constitutes a good building.

LW: Part of it is the discussion around the building’s narrative.

RM: That’s the performative part.

LW: How you present and how you make an argument about the existence of your building. Then you try to relate different elements of the building to your narrative.

W: I think there is another part to it as well. When we look at a drawing, we know how it was made. That gives you a clue into what they were doing to make the drawing and what they are trying to argue. There is a whole discussion that we have about the validity of somebody’s ideas—whether or not they have a good idea and subsequently how well they have represented it? We always are quick to comment on the quality of the representation.

RM: The good news in this, and this is more an observation rather than a criticism, is that the argument reinforces the premise that cultural value is performed. It’s not some absolute ideal or canon of works that one has to measure up to. Rather, it is an analysis of how certain historical figures did it—this is their diagram, this is their argument, and this is their theory.

G: I’ve noticed recently that whenever a student at GSAPP presents process it usually has a negative response. Earlier in my education, I was certainly able to say, “I did this, which led to that,” and so forth. You could never get away with that now. I talk to friends at other institutions and they still talk that way about their work. To them, the procedure is the justification.

W: Thank God that the initial diagram that one presents at the beginning of every presentation is finally dying off. That used to be a staple of so much work.

RM: When I used to teach studio I would make people present their projects backwards. Show the project first and then talk about the process. It’s not that the process is wrong. It has been fetishized. I think that one of the ways it has been fetishized is that Parametricism is conceived as pure process, as purely procedural. The object is never admitted as evidence into the courtroom.

The primary evidence is the numbers that get you there. There is something to this—it brings value judgments down to earth by saying that it is all practice and performance. But that too can be fetishized and idealized as a kind of end in and of itself. The reverse would be to ask, “Why did you do it? What is the value of it in the end?” One way to translate this into a critical question vis-à-vis parametric design is, “Where did you put the parentheses in the variable set? What is in? What is out?”

The more philosophical response would play these two things together, where there is the performance. The performance can become rhetoric, and rhetoric is real—argumentation is real. The reverse side is just as mystical, where you pretend the drawings speak for themselves. The architect is mute, or they are like Louis Kahn, uttering cryptic meaningless statements that have something to do with bricks or something to do with shadows. Then you think that must be good because I don’t understand what the hell he’s saying.

There’s still some deference to rational argument, then. On one hand there is a kind of hyper-rationalism that veers into technocratic, managerial Forrester-like madness. On the other, there are uncritical relationships to numbers. I just want to highlight that, and put it back into a historical context. As I tried to explain in regards to another Forrester diagram, what seemed to be a rational, numbers-based account of public housing in the city, was founded on all kinds of financial and socio-political assumptions that became self reproducing.

It had to do with fear and racial dispossession—fear of the other. Forrester built that fear into his equations, so of course the equations were going to reproduce it. That’s the one thing we certainly know about equations: built-in assumptions will be part of the output.

C: You mentioned how this system lends itself to capital and that certain assumptions are built into it. There was a recent ad campaign for Motorola cellphones that starts with the assumption that you need a new phone.

G: You design your dog, you design your office, you design your life. I think that mass customization is the way Parametricism sells itself to society. This system of variability that we have control over can give you all of these options in the same way as once we had to just make you one thing.

RM: Absolutely it is standardization versus variety. The first question is “who are you that you desire these things?” You are certainly not “one,” that’s for sure. Deleuze is good on this—he calls you a “dividual.” You are divided into passwords and cellphone colors and even sometimes different formal identities. As more of these variables are introduced into the technosphere and the social sphere, the more opportunity there is for self-differentiation. So the fantasy of finally gathering all of the variables together into one “self” is in fact inherently schizoid.

That’s also what capital is. Sometimes the simplistic critique of these things refers to something called the consumer society: “oh it’s just consumerism.” What I want us to be able to ask is who is a consumer and what is a consumer? A consumer is not just some cliché who desires commodities. A consumer constitutes an “it,” a he and a she—sometimes mixed together in a series of fissures that run along many different lines, which often correspond to the fissures in the larger society. It is anything but self-determination that consumerism is trying to sell you. It is exactly the indetermination of the self that capital produces. One of the things that architectural, technological, and social analysis of “things”—whether cellphones or buildings or cities—helps us with is demystifying capital. Because where is capital anyway? What does it look like? This thing is capital. It’s not like there is some god-like figure out there manipulating the world such that we have multi-colored cellphones; rather this is what it is, it is right there in front of us. It can be sobering to think that we, meaning those of us who work in the world of design, operate that system. We’re not merely subject to it as passive victims or beneficiaries of this wonderful or terrifying system. We are the system. That’s what they used to call the people who sat at screens looking for Soviet planes coming over the horizon. They thought their reflexes were faster than the reflexes of the machine to push the button to initiate the first strike. They were called operators. Just like others who interface with machines and systems, like telephone operators.

We are the operators. Not because you have a cellphone, but because of the design of that cellphone, and the design of anything to do with that cellphone. An operator is clearly different from an author—that’s part of what it comes down to for architects. Where is design anyway? How do you make decisions? Who is designing it—you or the computer? Well, the answer is really neither. It’s a kind of cyborg system. It’s not that the computer made me do it or that I am some independent author who simply uses tools. Rather, we are linked up and hooked into a kind of… the old-fashioned term used to be a man-machine system, a kind of cyborg monster with its feedback loops and iterations—just like a feedback loop between the screen, the brain and the hand, in which, in the case of some operators at least, the fate of the entire world essentially rests.

ALL: [cackling]

RM: It’s true! You heard about the guys at the nuclear silos who were getting drunk and playing card games… So they are neither independent judges nor simply machines. It’s complex and of course dependent on the kind of technological system, all of which has a certain logic. That phone is essentially an interface that somebody designs—somebody who is not classically an author or architect in the heroic, old-fashioned sense. That somebody is an operator of the system. They have intense responsibilities. So part of our response and responsibility could be to ask ourselves and our colleagues what does this mean?

What are the consequences of arranging the world in this particular way? Who are the masses of mass customization? Who is the desiring subject who needs a plaid cover on their phone? Of course, underneath the cover there are these standards and protocols that seem non-customizable. Some people will say “oh that’s fine, but it’s only the surface.” I actually don’t think that’s the real issue. The real issue is that it is potentially all customizable. You know, that the whole thing could in fact be customized. So the question is, what are its consequences?

1 Forrester, Jay Wright. Urban Dynamics. MIT Press, 1969

2 Forrester, Jay Wright. World Dynamics. Wright-Allen Press. 2nd Ed. 1971.

3 Martin, Reinhold. The Organizational Complex. MIT Press. 2005

4 Lyotard, Jean Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi. University of Minnesota Press. 1984.

5 Edwards, Paul N. The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America. MIT Press, 1997.

6 Martin, Reinhold. Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again. University of Minnesota Press. 2010.

7 Martin, Reinhold. Schumacher, Patrik. “Politics of Parametricism.” Lecture. Redcat Calarts. 2013. www.vimeo.com

Google image search: operator