A Brighter Future?

by astanhaus

Writer’s note: originally submitted for McGill University’s New Media class with Professor Caroline Bem.

Siemens aspires to be the world’s problem solving pioneer.[1] Their video “Smart Buildings – The Future of Building Technology” portrays an unsafe and inefficient world in peril, which can only to be made better by Siemens’s systems. “Our world is undergoing changes…changes that force us to think in new ways.” As a car drives through a pre-dawn city, punchy and disconcerting sounds meet each turn. Yet, none of the subsequent suggested improvements are truly innovative, the video admits the building of the future borrows from the past; “along the way to the future we will network classic domains completely and intelligently and we will create synergies that make new functions possible.” This confirms McLuhan’s conclusion that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium.”[2] Siemens intends to automate functions to improve efficiency, comfort and security of urban life, but Fuller, Vaidhyanathan, Lyon and Deleuze would warn that, if implemented the new media of the building of the future will have unintended, negative consequences.

Now daylight, Siemens’s building of the future is radiant and described to be a living organism, “networked, intelligent, sensitive and adaptable.” It is solely managed by one man in a dark control room tapping on a control panel. From this room, the man moves pods containing offices and meeting areas, allowing for “solutions that adapt to changing needs of operators and users.” From the control panel, he can also optimize route usage for both cargo and people. The energy used by the building of the future will be effectively managed, as the building’s intelligent energy management system controls the interplay of internal consumers, producers and the energy mix of public power grids. In Siemens’s building of the future, one person and a control panel will improve efficiency, comfort and security for all occupants.

Fuller would disagree with the efficiency implications of the extensive control panel, in light of his distaste for Microsoft Word. Fuller explains, “in order to create the fastest possible route between the human and the computer, a conduit to every function must be as accessible as possible on the screen; hence many icons on many toolbars occupying much of the screen. The questions is not whether this works: It clearly doesn’t. Users simply remember the few icons that they use regularly and are effectively locked out of the rest of the program.”[3] Siemens, creating all of this software to correct current inefficiencies, feeds right into Fuller’s conclusion, “software is too often reduced to being simply a tool for the achievement of pre-existing, neutrally formulated tasks. Culture becomes an engineering problem.”[4] Siemens’s building of the future will correct culture’s current inefficiencies, but will only be met with user frustration similar to those who use Microsoft Word.

Siemens’s video highlights its ability to control building occupants with both audio and visual guides throughout the building. Two women and a man are shown walking into a bright lobby, being scanned upon arrival; the building of the future utilizes  “discrete access controls according to the open door concept…People are guided quickly and safely to their destination, through personalized assistance, a wide range of control and navigation solutions point the way comfortably, and at the same time improve discretion in defined building zones.” What about a deviant who does not follow the directions of the green arrow wall art and handheld devices? While this question is not directly answered by the video, the building features occupancy sensory, highlighted as an asset to safe fire evacuations,  and only at the end does the control panel feature photos of people inside the building.  These two features have the potential to replicate the panopticon, as explained by Vaidhyanathan, “a design for a circular prison with a central watchtower, in which all the inmates would behave because they would assume that they were being observed at all times.”[5] The building of the future represents what Deleuze coined societies of control, while there are no barriers, what counts in these types of societies is “the computer that tracks each person’s position–licit or illicit–and effects a universal modulation.”[6] Lyon explained the motivation of current video surveillance systems, “they answer to particular political-economic pressures….neo-conservative governments wishing to contract out services and to cut costs, especially labor costs. In so doing, they are also attempting to reduce public fear of crime and create spaces for ‘safe’ consumption in the city.”[7] Yet, it is not a government that is designing the building of the future, but  Siemens– a multinational corporation. This is a result of what Vaidhyanathan described as public failure and the rise of corporate responsibility, “as the state has retreated from responsibility to protect common resources… private actors have rushed in to claim the moral high ground in the marketplace…The problem, however, is that corporate responsibility is toothless. Corporations do–and should do–what is in the interests of their shareholders, and nothing more.”[8] A corporation’s building of the future, with tracking and video surveillance capabilities, creates a society of control for the building’s occupants.

Siemens proudly concludes that the proposed building will solve today’s problems and society will further benefit from a network of these buildings throughout a city. Zooming out from the bright networked city, a fire truck with lights flashing is shown and met with a foreboding narration that networked cities “will also mean more security, security that growing urbanization urgently needs.” The analysis of Fuller, Vaidhyanathan, Lyon and Deleuze highlight the dark side of the new media that are featured in the building of the future. Their conclusions can be summarized by Weiner’s warning, “Gentlemen, when we get into trouble with the machine, we cannot talk the machine back into the bottle.”[9]

[2] McLuhan,“The Medium is the Message,” 8.

[3] Fuller, 151.

[4] Fuller, 162.

[5] Vaidhyanathan, “Infrastructural Imperialism,” 111.

[6] Deleuze, 7.

[7] Lyon, 16.

[8] Vaidhyanathan, “Render unto Caesar: How Google Came to Rule the Web,” 42-3.

[9]  Weiner, 72.

(Originally submitted for Amanda Stanhaus’s New Media Communications course  with  Caroline Bem.)