The Technium is the sphere of visible technology and intangible organizations that form what we think of as modern culture.
—Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants
The Technium is ubiquitous; like air it could be invisible. Fortunately, raging torrents that affect every person on earth are hard to ignore. Let’s look into one of the hearts of the Technium, that organ we call architecture.
You Are in the Technium Now
An ecosystem is a system of inter-dependent organisms and conditions. Ecosystems evolve. The current system can only exist because of past systems, each a stepping stone for new levels of action, each creating new sets of conditions, niches for life in its many forms.
But of course that’s what architecture does: it creates new conditions for life and culture, as does science, education, art and technology. Our culture and technology is evolving, enabled and built upon current and past developments. Kevin Kelly uses the word Technium to describe this complex stratum of evolving interdependencies and capacities. The Technium is evolving and growing fast. Our buildings must also evolve if they are to nurture our current and future cultures.
Why Do Our Buildings Persist?
Architecture is both a catalyst for, and a haven from, change. It responds to needs and yearnings. Over time those needs change, and our technology and cultures are evolving dramatically, changing the world we live in and the expectations of its inhabitants. Our buildings are shaped by the needs of the Technium.
A building’s resilience through time, as people and cultures supersede each other, relies on three aspects:
- The relevance to slower-changing or "universal" needs such as sanitation, cooking, sleeping space, work space, meeting space, places to walk, daylight, energy and information.
- The plasticity of the structures. Can their plumbing, heating, electricity and other things be adapted to changing social needs and expectations?
- Finally, a building may be important, beautiful enough in its own right to cause people to adjust to it.
I think we need to think of the universal needs of humans not as eternal, but slow to change. It’s easy to see that the technology we use and rely upon also has needs, and that some of these needs are also slow to change. Energy, provision for decay and renewal, and information and connection between devices are needs of the Technium which are not dwindling but increasing dramatically.
Sustenance for the Technium
If these basic needs are to be met by our buildings then we need to provide for this increase:
- Energy: Electricity needs to be available ubiquitously. Electrical energy is the most versatile form of energy we have. It can be easily converted into heat, light, or supply the needs of our machine brains.
- Information: The amount and speed of information required has been exploding. An infrastructure for the fastest transmission must be in place. It will be needed.
- Connectivity: Each device, socket, wall and switch should be connected to the digital infrastructure. Sooner or later that switch will be upgraded.
- Decay and renewal: Do not embed technology in cement. Our designs should account for the fact that every piece of electronic technology in the building will be repaired, replaced or upgraded over time.
Since there will be constant decay and renewal of technologies, the structure should allow the human or machine doctors to replace or change elements of the machine organism. We may need to change our idea of what a wall or floor is for.
Having covered the ground rules it time to move on and explore the potentials of the Technium. But first it’s time to confess. I work for the Technium - a doctor, you could say, for 20 years. I’ve reprogrammed super-yachts on the Mediterranean, struggled to route high speed data cables through listed buildings, brought machine intelligence into homes. I get called in to tend home automation systems which have become unstable after upgrades to their nervous system. The Technium is not new, just evolving fast.
Let’s look at some attitudes towards integrating and expanding our architecture.
Edges don’t exist
Sou Fujimoto’s work is based upon the integration of oppositions: inside outside, nature and the city, private and public. His buildings appear as beautiful organic responses to a complex ecosystem. Might this philosophy be applied to the Technium? An architecture which consciously integrates and negotiates the Technium, allowing some aspects to flow into our buildings and homes, while preserving our freedoms and privacy, both facilitating the Technium and molding it.
Our architecture is already resonating with the Technium. Every new home is expected to embody the Technium to some extent while Zaha Hadid’s amazing fluid structures both embody and extend it. Hadid’s practice, using extensive research and investment in new technologies, tries to push the boundaries of what’s possible with architectural materials and forms. They think of designers as hackers, hacking the future.
There is one thing we know about the future, it will be different. Wolf D Prix uses computer modelling and algorithms to create new closed architectural systems. Then he breaks those systems. We need to always be breaking out; invite the Techium in, then rebel against it. We need different viewpoints and ways of living, different spaces for our expression.
Our relationship to space changes with our ability to transverse it. Escalators, lifts, moving walkways, and fast moving vehicles allow physically distant spaces to be effectively closer. We expend less energy and trouble to move from a space here to enter a space there and so we make that journey more often.
A new architecture needs to notice that space has changed dramatically; spaces now travel to people.
People strive after experience; 3D displays, 3D soundscapes and virtual reality are common and on the increase. Your friend Facetimes you from the other side of the world, the internet delivers as much media as you could ever watch to your home displays, computer or phone. Wherever you are, distance can be collapsed. You remotely perceive other spaces. Currently these experiences mainly involve a rectangle of detailed moving images and stereo sound that we carry or place in buildings. Architecture should take on some of these roles, a wall becoming a display when needed, or a control surface. Any room could allow you to participate in an audio conference with a friend. It would be a kind of liberation if your hands could be free of phones or technology while you were within an advanced building. Your architecture would be permeable to other spaces and people not physically present. You could speak or act freely within a larger world, and expand beyond your physical constraints.
The dining room in 2 homes, say London and Tokyo, are joined together by special interactive walls. Each room contains a carefully calibrated audio and video system such that any person in the Tokyo house may talk and interact with the person in the English house "through" the wall. The wall acts like a digitally interactive window between distant physical spaces and is always on. You can imagine children playing together "through" the wall or chance encounters with guests in another house. A celebration where the party is extended from one room to the other, crossing time zones, people sit next to each other near the wall and chat, or stand and make a toast to all the guests at the party.
You enter the room, change into your tesla suit, put on your VR headset. You are at the beach the sun on your face. The azure sea is before you, its surf gently breaking on the warm sandy beach. A salty breeze picks up as someone squeezes your arm. You turn to see your friend (physically in Milan), "How’s your new job working out?" You walk along the beach together talking.
A circular room dedicated to total immersion. Soft walls, with a small changing room. Tesla suits for family and guests. These are virtual reality suits that incorporate hundreds of electrodes which stimulate muscles anywhere over your body so you can feel the virtual world. This room augments the virtual reality you are experiencing by using directional cooling and heating, wind and scent generators. A 3D audio system changes with the VR scene. The floor near the edges of the room contains treadmills so a person can walk or run into the distance. Machine vision identifies the person’s position and makes sure that the users are subtly guided away from walls and obstacles.
In the Mirror
In the bathroom, you notice a blue icon flashing within the surface of the mirror. You press it, the mirror becomes a live image from your door camera. Your friend has arrived early. Pressing the speak icon: "come in I’m just getting ready". You tap to unlock the door and the mirror becomes a mirror again.
The Whirling House
As you drive home you phone your house and ask it to arrange its rooms for a dinner party. The house is made up of 3 round sections each touching the other and connected by doorways. To the West each round building overlooks a beautifully valley. Internally each round area has a rotatable floor and is split into 2 rooms. These internal rooms can be aligned to external features as needed. When you arrive your living room, kitchen and dining room are adjacent, all positioned to catch the best evening view. Your favorite music is playing.
"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."
Architecture is formed from the fabric of a larger cultural and technological ecosystem that we inhabit. Architects work with it, meeting the needs of both the Technium and people.
A lot more is possible. Instead of reluctantly adding technology to our structures we can work from the understanding that we are immersed within the sea of an evolving Technium. This is not about creating machines to live in, the system is far more complex and organic. We need new technologically permeable and advanced architecture which transcends these boundaries. We must lead the technical and cultural wave, enriching and expanding upon it.
Will your building withstand the onslaught of the Technium?
Sean Langton is founder of Kineticka, a UK-based company which designs and installs advanced Home Cinema, Home Automation & Multi-room Systems.