Liam Young's Data Drama


29 April 2014

Data Drama was a conference with a simple point to make – the forces shaping our cities are no longer purely physical.

Hosted at Princeton University in New Jersey, USA, the conference invited speakers from across design, architecture and technology to reflect on the ways in which data, networks and technology affect and shape our understanding of the built environment.

The talks and workshop series was curated by architect Liam young, co-founder of the futurist think-tank Tomorrow's Thoughts Today, and invited speakers to discuss the way in which data shapes societies and the ramifications of this effect. Joining Young on the speaker's list were people such as Matt Jones, interaction design director at Google Creative Lab and ex-principle of design studio Berg; Carlo Ratti, architect and director of the urban think-tank Senseable City Lab at MIT; Ben Lewis, the documentarian behind Google and the World Brain; and James Bridle, artist and writer.

Data Drama sought to engage with and dispel traditional conceptions of what architecture is and does. Below, Young talks to Disegno about the need for architecture to reassess its concerns and why we need to develop a broader understanding of what falls within the domain of architecture. Accompanying the interview is a photography series that documents Google's data centres around the world.

First of all, what is your role within Data Drama?

I’m the curator and creator of Data Drama. I am a visiting professor at Princeton and I run a design studio there, so I was interested in expanding the interest I’ve been developing in Princeton into an events programme. Data drama is the first stage of that process and it's an extension of the themes that I’ve been developing in the design studio I run at Princeton – Brave New Now – that looks at the design of speculative films, fictions and animations, and explores the possibilities and consequences of emerging technologies. The last iteration of that studio was in august last year, when we went on a road trip through the USA visiting data centres and following the fibre optic cables to the heart of the US internet. We visited Facebook’s data centre, Google's data centre, the point at which the trunk line fibre optic cable arrives at the USA from Asia. We were trying to explore the spatial and cultural implications of big data and the network.

What is this data, if you had to define it?

Big data is large-scale data collection infrastructure; it's everything that has a sensor in it that collects information about us; it’s the aggregate data shadows that we all cast across the world based on Google searches, our Facebook friends, our Amazon purchase profiling; it’s the ability to collect and synthesise and calculate massive amounts of data; it's Google trends being able to predict when there will be outbreaks of flu based on people Googling flu symptoms in certain locations; it’s massive issues around privacy and the collection of data; commercial profiling or surveillance in the context of cities; conversations around the smart city; the fact that the city is a series of systems organised by algorithms and operating systems, not the chance encounters that we used to think of it as consisting of; the role of technologies we’re embedded in. We’re trying to look at the role of the designer and architect in this context where the forces shaping the city are no longer physical.

What does that mean for architecture?

That the things shaping cities are no longer those that we as architects have traditionally had remit over. Its not buildings or objects or large scale infrastructures or public spaces, it's networks, algorithms, software, Wifi systems. These are the things that architects needs to be engaging with. We need to explore and expand the field of what it is that designers and architects typically work with to include all of these technologies that primarily sit beyond the physical spectrum.

What do you think the role of the architect or designer can be in that environment? Do you think it is being fulfilled at the moment or is the field too new?

We’re doing it at the moment, we’re just not realising it or calling it "architecture". There are very few architects now making a living from producing real buildings as we understand them. We're seeing new forms of architects who are strategists, tacticians, politicians, media artists, network engineers, software engineers. These are the forms of practice that I think will become increasingly prevalent. They’re not going to replace building as an output that architects do as part of their practice, but they are going to expand the nature of what we consider architects as being. It's already happening, we’re just not legitimising it in architectural conversation yet.

What response does this get? Is it considered marginal or topical? Should the profession be doing more to bring it to the fore, or do you have to fight your own battles?

It depends on who you talk to. Most of my work is considered to be on the margins of architecture, but I would say that what I do is exceptionally mainstream. The vast majority of people I work with who are practicing as architects aren’t making buildings. They aren’t able to make buildings as they don’t have the client base and the economy’s not there at the moment to sustain a practice that’s defined so narrowly. The dominant form of practice now isn’t making buildings – it's speculating or working with local government in strategies, or working with technology companies. There’s an understanding that its relevant and urgent to re-evaluate what we’re doing. But when I present my work people will often dismiss it as being fiction and fantasy. Sometimes in the conservative architectural press they’ll wonder why we’re not doing social housing projects or talking about planning regulations and those more traditional forms of architecture. But I think there are plenty of architects out there doing that. What we’re tying to do is find new modes of practice.

But interestingly, when you went on the road trip last year, you were still drawn to the physicality of data, understanding it form a physical point of view.

Yes, from a spatial point of view. Essentially we’re trying to talk about the city as not just being a singular physical object, but as a networked object that has a great range of scales. The communities that occupy that city exist in a number of different states. They exist in the physical state, but also the virtual state of the network. For some people one takes priority over the other, but they’re not indistinct and separate. They’re layered on top of each other in much the same way that when it rains in the city wetness and damp become a part of the city and change your experience of it. That’s what technology does. The argument is that designers and architects have trained in a spatial field and we can have different conversations about technology and data from those a software engineer would have. I think acknowledging the physical implications of data and exploring where it bubbles to the surface and becomes spatial is something that we can offer that’s unique and strategic to the whole conversation around these technologies.

You’ve had people like James Bridle and Matt Jones speaking at the conference. Do you think these people are good examples of working with data in this way.

Matt Jones is a maker. Berg work with data as a material and they make objects. They’re product designers on a smaller scale than architects, but I think they’re good examples of people operating with data as a new kind of material. James is more of a commentator, but certainly the things he talks about are urgent issues around the idea of big data. He talks about privacy and surveillance and algorithms and drones. These are critical discussions because they are before-culture technologies, by which I mean the technologies have evolved faster than our cultural capacity to understand their implications and consequences. People like James play a really important role in bringing these issues to the surface.

Only two women spoke at the conference. Is this a male-dominated area of architecture at the moment?

It’s a male-dominated list I’ll admit, but I don’t think it’s a male-dominated field. There’s lots of really amazing female practitioners in this world, who weren’t able to make it for whatever reason. I tried to get Regina Duggan who runs Google’s advanced technology and project division, but she couldn’t make it so she sent her colleague Ivan Poperov. Technology has been a male dominated industry to some extent but I don’t think that’s the case now. Technology is so ubiquitous that you cant separate it from culture. It permeates every part of our lives and I don’t think women are any less represented in technology than they are in proportion to other fields. The same criticism of the list could be levelled at every architectural practice. It's not a disciplinary blindness, it’s more of a cultural blindness, which technology isn’t separate from.

Where does the title come from?

There’s a big genre of work and practitioners that are operating under the banner data visualisation. Typically when you talk about big data you’re talking about data visualisation, which is about expressing very complex data feeds in visual form. But the term I use in my own work is data dramatisation, wherein we try and imbue data systems and technologies with cultural and emotional content. We’re trying to present data in a way where people can develop emotional and personal relations with it. Data drama suggests technology is not indivisible from culture and that we should be looking for ways to make these data systems relatable. We should be presenting them in ways that broader audiences can connect with. Fiction and drama is the way that our culture shares and disseminates ideas. They’re the techniques I use to bring people into these conversations.