You will not be able to read this, at least not all of it.
This is fine with us.
We are convinced that shifts in media will require adjustments in the way we approach them. We are also convinced that architecture is implicated in these media shifts.
In the past it was thought that to engage these media was to doom architecture to mortality. As Victor Hugo famously suggested when he wrote “ceci tuera cela.”
This will kill that.
The book will kill the building.
But if the book killed the building and if the computer killed the book, you would not be holding this. Media do not “die” but simply become contained and communicated via other media. The play between material and immaterial, the concealment and revealing of media—all of this is a shell game. Architecture, which has been in the business of making shells since Vitruvius, should master this confidence game instead of merely being an instrument in its propagation. It should endeavor to produce its own.
Not by contradicting digital media, resisting them, or negating them—but by seducing them.
The masters of the shell game are referred to as tossers. Their mastery consists of the ability to change the verb.
From “find” to “miss.” From “risk” to “guarantee.”
From “hold” to “fold.”
You can’t win if you don’t play.
The only way to play is to win.
From “kill” to…?
IT NEVER STOPS
2D Barcodes are (il)legible.
Perhaps what is most disturbing and exciting about the 2D barcode is that it is legible at an aesthetic level while remaining illegible at the level of “content.” It is a form of computerized writing that appears not have the layer-cake of computer “languages” (compiler, programming, graphic, etc.) attached, which do the work of translating the nanoscopic voltages of the circuitboard into image and gesture. The 2D barcode is a surface, seemingly analogous to the surface of the screen or printout, produced by the computer for the computer. It is language that passes seen but not understood.
These codes were developed to encode information beyond the capacity of the ubiquitous one-dimensional barcode, familiar to most in the form of the Universal Product Code (UPC) that is present on most consumer goods. The simplicity of the UPC – data is encoded in only a single line of bits – allows the scanning devices to be equally simple (fig. 01, 02, 03). The familiar “beep” at the grocery checkout is the sound of recognition by a laser scanner as a product’s exit from the store is registered. The large two-dimensional barcode family, which includes various formats like the Aztec Code, Datamatrix, QR Code, and so on, requires a photographic sensor to process all the data at once. Though simple, the linear barcode scanner based upon the sweep of a laser is cumbersome, expensive, and available only to a specialized clientele. It is surprising, then, to find an overlap between the scanning device for the complex 2D barcode and the small cameras that are built into most of our mobile phones. Marketing companies have recognized this and have begun to exploit the special opacity of the 2D barcode to embed more information in advertisements or to embark on “secret” campaigns in which only those “in the know” are able to access the information that is being promoted. However, before investigating the impacts and possibilities of this technology, it is helpful to place it in the broader contexts of both logistics and cryptography—two spatial registers in which the 2D barcode is implicated.
Computers are for seeing.
When it comes to attempting to understand the physical structure of the computer, we use an analogy so common and so reliable as to have become a cliché. The microchip, with its complex, layered network of circuits, “looks like a map of Midtown that shows not merely streets, subways, and buildings, but the floors of every building; all the rooms, their furniture, every telephone and electric and gas and steam line. There’s a kind of organizational logic to this complex, but it is mysterious. This is not a map. A map is a simplification; this is the thing itself.” (source?) The chip, like the city, is not a representation, but the real. It resists reading.
This analogy, however, leads us in some unexpected directions as we gaze at the microchip, as though we are being led down a service chase rather than a sidewalk in this Lilliputian city. In looking downwards into the microchip, we are not gazing at a symbol of the urban. Instead, it seems, we are confronted with a paradox: a mirror image of pure difference.
These chips, it appears, are not cities at all, nor representations of complexity. They resist reading because they are looking back at us. And not just because some computers now use chips arrayed like eyes for the expressed purpose of simulating the physiological process of “seeing” (fig. 04).
As institutions from IBM to the Museum of Modern Art have argued, these designs for microchips are “icons of our time.” Telling language, since the function of the ikon is to allow one access to a space beyond the surface of the picture, to an unknowable, complex and mysterious heaven. The ikon is a magical representation, one that does not stand in for the real, but rather extends our perception, placing us in direct contact with the real. All else outside the frame falls into banality—it is but illusion when compared to the sublime divinity of the real.
Computers, it is easy to forget, were invented for this very purpose. Leaving aside Alan Turing’s famous thought experiment of the “Universal Machine” and its manifold metaphysical implications, the earliest devices we might identify as being true members of this genre of remarkable “machines that think”—e.g. The “Colossus” and “Bombes” of Bletchley Park; Harvard’s Mark I; IBM’s “Defense Calculator,” etc.—clearly evince the enhanced visuality that computers provided to their inventors. Even such a brief and sketchy list (it leaves out the accomplishments of Konrad Zuse, and certainly those of Babbage and Lovelace) is enough to demonstrate a simple but oft overlooked fact: the raison d’être of the computer is to see in a new way. Despite different “areas” of application, these early machines were invented for a single and singular purpose—to extend our vision over space and through time, in order that we might control territory in the past, present and future. For example, the Enigma-cracking calculators of Bletchley Park allowed the Allies to see the German Navy’s future movements in the depths of the ocean, contributing greatly, of course, to the defeat of the U-Boats of the Kriegsmarine and the Allied invasion of continental Europe. Later computer design efforts, such as the US Army and Air Force’s collaboration with MIT and IBM on the creation of Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE), the forerunner of both contemporary real-time management systems and the Internet in general, were also paradigmatic of this need for a new vision. Given this spatial reach, it should be unsurprising that architects have participated actively in these efforts to hyperextend our vision over abstract and invisible fields.
Architecture is a logistical image of itself.
For the commission to design the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, SOM convinced the Air Force of its superior competence not by submitting a conventional architectural design, but rather a series of flowcharts and logistical diagrams demonstrating how they would organize the design and construction process. Derived as these diagrams were from SOM’s intimate experience with the military-industrial complex in their secret project for building the entire city of Oak Ridge, TN under the directives of the Manhattan Project, they instantly demonstrated SOM’s recognition of the fundamental modus operandi of the post-WWII military.
Interestingly, SOM also included a proposal for how to continue to manage the material apparatus of the Air Force Academy. Hiring on Walter Dorwin Teague and Associates as consultants, SOM developed a system for managing all of the building materials, mechanical services, furnishings, and even clothing for the Academy—each item was given a unique digital code indicating both its type (e.g. aluminum L-frame support, classroom chair, cadet dress uniform jacket, etc.) and a number identifying it as an individual article of that type. This data was affixed to each element of the complex, and could be managed by a central computer (an IBM 1440, then not yet available in the business market). Broken or lost items could be instantly identified, and replacements ordered.
The spatiality of the internal workings of this computer system was not that of the Academy itself. Rather, the computer contained within it a representational schema of the movement of objects within the space of the Academy—it was a kind of Archimedean point, from which all things could be viewed in a non-perspectival play of relations. But the use of this logistical system did have an impact upon the architectural form of the complex: to facilitate the panoptic observation of the flow of objects (and the officers and cadets attached to those objects), SOM laid out the buildings on a rigidly three-dimensional modular grid (i.e. raster), embedding that grid into the landscape, making it possible to translate the logistical data within the computer into an image that could be projected on a cathode ray tube (CRT) display (fig. 05). Thus, never losing its three-dimensional qualities, the architecture nonetheless became a logistical image of itself. In order to understand how this logistical approach plays out at a territorial level, it is helpful to first consider the origins of the word.
Architecture is a medium of transmission.
Logistics is a spatio-temporal discipline. The term derives not, as one might expect, directly from the protean Greek logos, but rather from the French loger—to lodge or house. It is therefore a topological practice, the art of placing each thing (persons/troops, facilities/emplacements, supplies/materiel) in its proper place at its proper time.
Management, the name of a branch of logistics usually used to connote the control over people within an organization, is quite similarly a spatio-temporal discipline. The term comes from the old French for forestry, the control over territory. It is thus quite surprising to some that today the main representational tools of logistics and management are only rarely spatial in any conventional sense. Rather than moving models of weapons/products/people across a model territory, practitioners of logistics deploy diagrams—flowcharts, homonculi, regressions, etc.—to model the space and time of the territory under their control. These models are likewise topological, describing only those aspects of the objects represented that are relevant to the logistical process. Indeed, in many cases, the specific form that a logistical system takes is only loosely determined by the nature of the geographical space in which it is situated. In the case of SOM’s Air Force Academy, the logistical organization of material is inscribed as a physical complex in a landscape and as a visual field on a screen. However, whether it is the Academy’s property lines or the edges of the CRT displays, these territories have established boundaries that place an a priori constraint on the form that the logistical complex/image can acquire. At a territorial level, the constraints that influence the shape of the logistical system are more elusive, often residing in distribution requirements, economic models, and efficiency protocols. Consequently, the resulting form of the system evades visualization because it is being continuously reorganized – it is constantly moving.
In one instance of a logistical system, that of the retail giant Wal-Mart, its apparent form—but also performance—illuminates a recalibrated set of geographies that underscore the special way of seeing that is demanded of the corporate logistician. Wal-Mart shares with the military a need for complete control over its personnel, transport, and materiel. The company obsessively collects data from every customer transaction in order to develop predictive models of consumer behavior. This process cultivates a conflict within Wal-Mart’s logistics operations because it requires the merchandise to be understood and manipulated as pure data in spite of the obvious and persistent materiality of the goods (fig. 06). The company’s decision, for example, to double the level of Strawberry Pop-Tarts on shelves in an area threatened by a hurricane, ripples throughout the entire spatial network without immediate effects on those in the control room – a disconnection that echoes with contemporary narratives of military operations. However, in the case of SOM’s Air Force Academy there was a reciprocal relationship between the 2D readout and the 3D architectural analogy: WYSIWYG.
What you see is what you get.
In the case of Wal-Mart though, the expansiveness of the theater of operations makes this kind of formal control is impossible. The logisticians responsible for orchestrating the storage and delivery of merchandise see the system primarily as a balance equation with little concern for the geographical implications of their decisions. The consequence of this is two versions of the same condition increasingly cleaved apart—one rendered in terms of databases and digital transmissions, the other in terms of distribution centers and 18-wheelers. Indeed, as the decision makers are mostly automated computers, they are programmed to follow their protocols as efficiently as possible while directing material to its proper destination: WTSIWYG.
What they see is where you go.
Sam Walton, the homespun corporate hero and founder of Wal-Mart, was himself a kind of “outsider” logistician—a “natural,” we could say. In his autobiography, in the chapter called “Rolling out the Formula,” Walton wrote, “We figured we had to build our stores so that our distribution centers, or warehouses, could take care of them, but also so those stores could be controlled…each store had to be within a day’s drive of a distribution center.” From the outset, this mode of conceptualizing Wal-Mart’s territory as concentric, calibrated, and above all, controlled, dominated the company’s growth. Rather than identifying receptive markets, regardless of their relative position to corporate headquarters, as most of their competitors were doing, Wal-Mart embarked on a steady expansion outward from its hometown of Bentonville, never exposing itself and certainly never sending stores into “enemy territory” without first developing adequate logistical support mechanisms. This is apparent if one follows the company’s domestic growth (fig. 07, 08). Visualizing the stores throughout the United States amounts to a reinscription of the nation’s infrastructural network. The location of these retail outlets conforms to a modified real estate logic in which Conrad Hilton’s maxim of “location, location, location” is replaced by “delivery, delivery, delivery.”
The lynchpins of Wal-Mart ’s logistics regime are its distribution centers. These monstrous processor-buildings are the colonizers that are used to first establish new market centers. As every Wal-Mart in a given region is served by its local distribution center (DC), they play a key role in the company’s organization. But what kinds of buildings are these anyway? Distribution Center 6094 outside of Bentonville, for example, has an area of over 1,000,000 square feet but turns over more than 90% of its contents every day. Trucks bearing 40-foot shipping containers full of merchandise from suppliers unload their contents onto conveyors that sort it into short-term, high-density storage shelves. Legions of workers, mainlined into the Wal-Mart database, roam these storage corridors to pick and assemble supply orders for the local supercenters. Through continuous and automated feedback mechanisms, distribution center employees via their earpieces and scanners strapped to their arms (effectively “seeing” for them) are told when to put what where (fig. 09). Once the task of “picking” is completed, the building does the rest by moving the container of picked goods along its path and, through electronically controlled actuators, routing it to the appropriate docking bay that corresponds to the correct Wal-Mart store. While it is perhaps common to assume that architecture’s role is to provide shells for containment or production, the distribution centers are remarkable because their primary role is the processing of material. In this sense, the buildings function more as conduits within an infrastructural and logistical system intent on moving material as quickly and as effectively as possible. These buildings are not just providing the armature for the automation of information management, they are automatic themselves (fig. 10). In acknowledgement of this continuous flow of material, the CIO of Wal-Mart, Rollin Ford, asserts “the system is constantly moving … It never stops.” If the merchandise being moved is conceptualized as data as much as physical material, as “media” in fact, and if the content of one medium is always another, then understanding architecture as a medium can recast it to productive ends. If its duties can shift from enclosure to transmission, how might it affect the way it is designed?
Architecture’s ability to acquire this processor-role is linked to developments in the automation of information management. What used to be done laboriously and inaccurately by hand has been replaced by glyphs passing though and being registered by scanning stations. Furthermore, the merchandise itself takes on an air of inscrutability. Instead of opening a box and inspecting its contents visually, workers and machines trust that the contents of the vessel correspond to those inscribed in the box’s barcode. This inscrutability is repeated at the architectural level. The interiors of these distribution centers are constituted by seemingly blank boxes and crates, the contents of which can only be accessed by workers with special “eyes” in form or their hand-held or “wearable” scanners (fig. 11). Likewise, the building itself registers more as an absence to human eyes. Conventionally, one could say that the distribution center “contains” the various mechanisms for sorting and transporting retail merchandise but it would amount to saying that the aircraft carrier merely “contains” the fighter planes launched from its deck.
To focus on the banal enclosures of the mechanical systems of a Wal-Mart distribution “center” is to miss the architecture’s status as but one outpost in a far-flung network. The flexibility and mobility of the “center”—like the moving fortress of the aircraft carrier—gives the lie to the center’s centrality. We must also remember that the fighter planes are themselves protective enclosures; as are the flight suits and helmets. The enclosure, in both cases, is not a “closing off” of interior from exterior, but a means of connecting that interior to other interiors. One might think of the (duly barcoded) box of Pop-Tarts, moving from one enclosure to another while simultaneously moving through a string of conduits—in either case, it never stops: the product never leaves the productive-distributive-consumptive system.
Beyond the fact that the contents of the system never stop moving, it is more significant that the system itself is constantly moving. Though Rollin Ford likely meant that the mechanisms that comprise the distribution system are constantly activated in order to transport and sort merchandise, his assertion that, in fact, “the system” is continuously in motion is telling because it confronts us with the difficulties of understanding such a thing. If one follows a single object along its path, one misses the larger picture of millions of objects moving simultaneously within a system that is also constantly transforming. The single SKU (stock keeping unit) is monitored at an instantaneous time scale, the TEUs carried by the trucking fleet change their position on a daily period, and new destinations in the form of new Supercenters are added to the system weekly (requiring more trucks and in turn more distribution centers that then allow for more stores to be built, etc…). What we are witnessing here is a Russian doll, a shell game in which enclosure begets enclosure. The trusses and panels of a Wal-Mart distribution center must then be seen from both inside and “outside”: How does this architectonic enclosure affect its surroundings? What would happen if we saw architecture as conduit rather than container? The “contents” of the medium no longer exist in any one place, they only register as echoes within an ephemeral geography – as soon as their location is fixed, they are already somewhere else.
Provisionally, we can know the location of the pea as the tosser rapidly shuffles the shells. Not by guessing which shell conceals it, but by understanding that it is, intentionally and specifically, not on the table in the first place.
SO … WHAT ARE WE LOOKING AT HERE?
Encryption has a geography.
Though there are several ways to engage the city, doing so within a visual regime is undeniably primary. It is also a common criterion by which designs are evaluated. Significant and influential planning documents over the last 50 years have proposed and promoted legible versions of urbanity—a city one can “image.” While these directives place emphasis on spatial recognition and legibility, how can we account for instances within the city where our visual reliance is confounded? Can the city be legible at other levels than at the experiential spatial level? Rather than dealing with questions of whether the city can be understood as a “text” that can be “read,” what if we look to the things in the city that are texts, comprised of words and images designed specifically to read. At this literal level, the city is obviously inscribed with numerous layers of textual information (building names, addresses, street signs, billboards, newspaper stands [with newspapers in them], shop signs and storefronts, street markings, graffiti, advertising, etc.).
Many of these layers are legible—most of them to anyone who cares to read; yet the conspicuous presentation of illegible signs on tectonic matter presents us with a striation of urban space. Urban encryption organizes spaces against the grain of their a priori structure. A well known example of this oppositional inhabitation and recoding of space is hobo code (fig. 12), comprised of secret marks that communicate specific messages legible only to a member of the confraternity of the homeless (e.g. “unsafe place,” “doctor lives here,” “work available,” etc.). These marks are affixed more or less permanently to architecture and infrastructure in order to allow a marginalized group to inhabit an otherwise hostile environment.
The much-publicized practice of “warchalking,” itself inspired by hobo code, is another case in point. By secretly marking out areas of the city where free access to wireless networks is available, the encrypted marks exploit areas of the infrastructure that are themselves insufficiently encrypted and are therefore vulnerable. The practice flies in the face of conventional values and legal statutes regarding private property.
Such modes of urban encryption, which aim to reappropriate that which is marked in secret, frequently produce misunderstanding and even moral outrage. Warchalking was initially received as a symbol of pure criminality. The recent dust-up over a guerilla marketing campaign for the Cartoon Network program Aqua Teen Hunger Force is another case in point (fig. 13). After someone placed a series of LED displays of the trenchantly amoral “Mooninites” from said program throughout the city’s transportation network, Boston officials responded to the perceived “threat” of the electronic devices by engendering mass panic, characterizing these “devices” as “bombs” and accusing the “perpetrators” of the “crime” of producing the snarled traffic and economic slowdown that they themselves produced. Hobo codes and war chalking symbols take their place among many illegible urban markings and are thus absorbed into the visual field of inscribed surfaces; remaining available for those seeking them out but invisible to all others. However, in the case of the Mooninite scare of January 31, 2007, the encrypted objects were intentionally made to stand out through their illegibility. Viewers could neither avoid nor interpret the objects. The subsequent collective alienation at the hands of an apparently illegible symbol contributed to the disproportionate judicial response.
Modernist architecture, which alienated many through its rejection of some important and familiar conventions (e.g. the pitched roof, “picture” windows, organic materials, etc.), suffered much the same fate at many junctures (fig. 14). It was misinterpreted by the Nazis as “North African” and “bazaar” architecture; Hollywood had a tendency to house its villains in modernist villas (viz. the Wrightian mansion at the conclusion of North by Northwest, or the more Corbusian home of the satanic priest in The Black Cat); and even Tom Wolfe objected that the Bauhaus was most definitely not “our” house. Yet in each of these instances, the misunderstanding was perpetrated by reproducing the image of the purportedly criminal object. From this “point of view,” the covering-over of architecture with “postmodern” codes (e.g. the re-pitched roofs and Tudor/Classical/Neo-Gothic/Mediterranean Vernacular of New Urbanists and acolytes of Charles Moore and Robert A.M. Stern) is only evidence of modern architecture’s adaptation to the demands of an advanced capitalist real estate market. Modern architecture - as an attitude, approach, and system - is still there but, cloaked in stylistic ciphers, has very little to do with what it looks like. Therefore, we may say that encryption has a geography: the layers of code covering over every aspect of the city take place in a specific way. Understanding this geography of encryption is significant because it suggests potential avenues for collective engagement.
The family of 2D barcodes offers a specific kind of urban code. In the case of the other examples, humans can always read them – they may need to understand the reference (ATHF) or to have it translated (hobo codes) but in the end, the information encoded is a simple graphic language. On the other hand, the 2D bar code and its predecessor constitute, in the words of bar code expert Henry Burke, “a printable machine language. In fact, bar codes are the only printable machine language which reproduces directly the bit-streams of ones and zeros which are the basis for the internal logic of all digital computers” (fig. 15). So unlike the codes mentioned above, we will never be able to read a 2D barcode. One-dimensional barcodes like the UPC symbol (which usually contains 10 numbers and 95 bits) could conceivably be “read” by humans with an advanced capacity for recognizing binary arrangements (assuming they know in which standard the bar code is written). However, 2D barcodes have up to 5,329 bits arranged in much more complex patterns. Since these codes will always require mechanical assistance to understand them, they perform differently than the examples mentioned above because, though they are applied signs, they offer no trace of legibility. Through the use of a reading device, the 2D barcode communicates a URL, text, or phone number but it has no visual referent. In this sense, the 2D barcode enciphers some piece of information that is made available to any member of the public who possesses the right “key” in the form of a cameraphone and the proper software.
In an effort to probe the possibilities of such urban encryption, the promotional image provided by the Kaywa software group is helpful because it presents an image of a kind of endgame of urban encryption in which nearly every surface is covered with a 2D barcode (fig. 16). The effect in the end - in terms of the marketing apparatus promoted by the company - is meaningless because the entire success of the 2D barcode is predicated upon differentiation from its surroundings. If the condition shown in the image were to come to pass, everyone inhabiting the city would need a “key” in order to read the surfaces. In this sense, urbanites would be no different that the workers inside Wal-Mart’s distribution centers who rely on their own scanner-keys to do their job and “decipher” the information embedded in the cartons and pallets they are moving about. However, the encrypted city has no such function and no such need. So what are we to make of the potential of this condition? If we can say that computers are, as described above, looking at us then the 2D barcode could be understood as the computer’s attempt to try to communicate with us. They act as transmitters of sorts except, rather than tuning to the proper frequency to understand the signal, one only need to capture the image with the proper tool in order to engage the code in communication. Similarly, with radio transmissions, one is not aware of their presence unless one is on the right channel. In contrast, the fact that the visual 2D barcodes exist in space, i.e. take place, serves as an alienating reminder of their presence. It is precisely this intersection between engagement and alienation where the potential of these graphic objects resides. As Brecht writes, “a representation that alienates is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar.” In the same manner, the familiar urban terrain is rendered strange by the presence of the 2D barcode. Their potential is not to pass unseen but to productively engage their audience through the information they contain.
In addition to its uncanny ability to encode data out of sight, the 2D barcode has the potential to encode an amount of data in excess of that necessary for its putative “function”….
We are all cryptographers.
In the case of computing technologies, Friedrich Kittler reminds us, “We no longer know what we write.” The strata of computer languages and electronic interfaces that makes it possible to translate gesture (keystroke, mouse movement, speech act) into the play of voltages in a microscopic circuit and back again, all playing out on the surface of the screen…. This is the reality of technology: our primary storage and playback medium operates out of sight—hidden from view and encrypted by default.
Cryptography—literally, “hidden writing”—is the name that we give to this process of writing. It is practiced in secret, concealing messages intended for one and not another co-conspirator. Of course, the history of this special mode of writing long antedates the appearance of digital media (although it is always already a particulate practice, “translating” and “substituting” discrete symbols for others); and though its primary uses and moments of development have coincided with changes in the art of warfare, its newest secrets held in tightest isolation by a class of warrior-poets, it is a common practice. Secrets are not rarities but commonplaces: Love letters, blind carbon copies, encoded messages of fraternity and sorority (think for a moment of the Freemasonic Zodiacs concealed in buildings of state, graffiti tags, or the marks of hobos “on the road”). Even the diary—often encoded, but more often simply kept under lock and key in a discrete corner of the boudoir—serves many of us as a place to hide our writing.
Yet digital writing has changed the rules of this game, engendering new species of secrecy. Writing on a computer (whether a desktop, laptop, Blackberry, iPhone, etc.) is not a matter of the human writer encrypting the text. On the contrary, we write in more or less conventional terms, albeit on a “typewriter with a feedback loop” [Konrad Zuse]. The computer does the work of encryption. Thus, although the process of digital writing can meaningfully be described as cryptographic, from an architectural perspective it is more accurately a steganographic process.
Steganalysis is principled paranoia.
Steganography, a term often confused with cryptography because the two words have been used interchangeably for centuries, is not “hidden writing” but rather “covered writing.” In contemporary telematics, steganography has thus become something quite different than cryptography, a higher order of encryption that is at once more abstract and fundamentally material—concrete. This writing may or may not be encrypted in a conventional sense, but its fundamental characteristic is that the message itself passes as something different from itself—in its most extreme forms, steganography is not even recognizable as a message at all. It is, as it were, the covers of the diary and the diary’s lock and key, the protective surfaces mediating our relationship to the text, rather than the text itself.
Steganography works by the same principles of concealment and revealing that motivates cryptography, but in steganography we must concern ourselves with the physical and ideological structure of the message—in other words, how the message appears. In the words of one of the leading contemporary theorists of such writing (aka the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation), “The advantage of steganography over cryptography alone is that messages do not attract attention to themselves, to messengers, or to recipients.”
Steganalysis is not the relatively simple matter of code-breaking, but the frenzied search to find any and all codes and test them for their authenticity as writing. A certain paranoia must, therefore, haunt the steganalyst. Everything might, and occasionally must, be passing for something other than what it is. Harmless, feckless, disorganized (even random) phenomena may, when viewed “in the light of day,” appear to be part of a vast conspiracy of meaning. Moreover, even when decoded, the evidence of this conspiracy—like the delusions of the paranoid schizophrenic—is only ever visible through metonyms, small parts standing in for the “deeper” plot.
Every architect and urban planner must play the part of the steganalyst, attributing meaning to a set of phenomena that to any other would appear to be either hopelessly complex or merely banal. However, it is rare to find architects working self-consciously in this way. By borrowing the terminology of the applied mathematics and logic of cryptography and steganography, we can more clearly see the architectural potential of our own disciplines.
The FBI has produced a handy guide to the misty realm of codes. One type of steganography, the semagram, is familiar to any designer—architect, industrial designer, graphic designer alike. It “hide[s] information by the use of symbols or signs. A visual semagram uses innocent-looking or everyday physical objects to convey a message, such as doodles or the positioning of items on a desk or Website. A text semagram hides a message by modifying the appearance of the carrier text, such as subtle changes in the font size or type, adding extra spaces, or different flourishes in letters or handwritten text.” Another type is jargon code: “language that is understood by a group of people but is meaningless to others.” Concealment ciphers “hide a message openly in the carrier medium so that it can be recovered by anyone who knows the secret for how it was concealed. A grille cipher employs a template…. A null cipher hides the message according to some prearranged set of rules….” All of these means of concealment are familiar to the architect, perhaps without even thinking of these codes as concealment. The orthogonal drawing, the jargon of “tectonics,” the manifesto, the algorithmic distortion of geometries…the list goes on and on. These concealment codes offer powerful techniques for architecture to continue pursuing its shell game.
What is missing, however, is a principled approach to these practices of subterfuge—in short, by what rules we ought to make decisions about the construction of our future settlements. Thankfully, the rules of cryptography are hardly in short supply; they have been elucidated in military theories and hermetic professions of faith, treaties and treatises. Even better, they are so general as to be pliable, allowing the architect multiple modes in which to operate without violating the rules. Indeed, the various characters that populate these circles – along with their attendant methods – can serve as inspiring role models. The double-agent, the spy, the mole, the code talker, the traitor, the informant, and others like them can all aid in the inventive construction of one’s own paranoid but disciplined reality. If architecture suffers from a deficiency of possible futures, what we need are ways dislodge the assumptions currently keeping things in place. Though paranoiacs are sometimes delusional, at least they are consistently creative…
Auguste Kerckhoffs’s article “La cryptographie militaire” [Journal des sciences militaires IX (January 1883): 5-38] offers us just such a set of rules for an architecture of principled paranoia. Everything depends first and foremost upon the viability of the system, and this system must be:
1. substantially, if not mathematically, undecipherable;
2. not reliant upon secrecy (i.e. it can be stolen by the enemy without causing trouble);
3. easy to communicate and remember the keys without requiring written notes (as a corollary, it must also be easy to change or modify the keys with different participants);
4. compatible with telecommunication systems;
5. portable, and its use must not require more than one person;
6. easy to use and must neither require stress of mind nor the knowledge of a long series of rules.
This book—what you hold in your hands, and all that is connected to it by invisible threads of writing—could be the beginnings of one such system. If we are to take the imperatives of discourse analysis seriously in architecture, it is necessary not only to accept the form of discourse—i.e. the structures and spaces in which it operates—but also to deploy the tools that make its reformulation possible. This demands a certain kind of fluency, a grasp of the capacity of the abstract statement, and a purposeful differentiation of the statement through its iterative use. To do otherwise is to ignore what it is that we do when we encrypt—all that remains is the illiterate and blind burial of “meaning” under a sea of impenetrable codes.
In the face of the 2D barcode, we can think of no better image for the new architect than the tosser in the entrance to the subway. Setting up the table in the space just in between buildings, streets, subterranean infrastructure, in a churning sea of people armed with gizmos…. Take the pea off the table, shuffle the shells, and learn what the table itself makes possible.
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